Hackers had a very busy year in 2017, and so did the people whose job it is to protect IT systems from them.
In May 2017 there was the global ransomware attack that afflicted firms worldwide including Deutsche Bahn, FedEx and (most controversially) the UK’s National Health Service. Just a month later, a poorly configured Amazon cloud server resulted in hundreds of millions of US voter records being exposed online.
Then, in July, one of the “worst breaches of all time” resulted in personal data about nearly 150 Million people being exposed after hackers targeted US credit reference agency Equifax.
These are just three examples from last year, and there were plenty of others. What’s more, security researchers predict that 2018 could be far worse, with some even raising the prospect that the artificial intelligence security companies are using to fight cybercrime could be equally useful to the hackers that perpetuate it.
As an individual, you may perhaps be wondering how concerned you should be about growing cybercrime trends. After all, the attacks highlighted above were aimed at companies, weren’t they?
While this is true, in many cases the attacks released the personal details of millions of individuals. There are now huge amounts of this data out “in the wild,” often available for purchase on the dark web. It’s not unduly alarmist to say that someone could already have your email address, postal address and social security numbers – gaining access to just one of your passwords could be enough to set them on a path to access to your bank accounts and other online presences.
So, what can you do? Thankfully there are some precautions you can take to make you a less easy target than other people – and they’re not particularly difficult steps to take.
It would be hard to believe that anyone nowadays is unaware of the need for good password security online. Almost every website you sign up to advises the use of a strong and unique password, and IT professionals emphasise the importance of this repeatedly.
However, the evidence is out there that people aren’t taking this advice seriously. Studies repeatedly show the people continue to use ludicrously easy to crack passwords like “123456” and “qwerty,” despite this repeated advice.
It’s now beyond daft to continue to do this. Passwords remain a single and simple point of entry to thousands of websites and IT systems, and by stubbornly refusing to shore them up you truly are doing the hackers’ jobs for them. Password managers like KeePass make it simply to keep track of multiple passwords, so the fact it’s a lot of effort is no longer an excuse!
It’s also well worth activating two-factor authentication (2FA) wherever possible. This reduces the chance of anyone opportunistically hacking info one of your accounts by requiring something additional to a password, such as a one-off code sent to a cell phone by text message. Sites from Gmail to PayPal give you the chance to do this, so it’s wise to make use of the facility.
Once primarily a way for employees to access office computer systems, virtual private networks (VPNs) have now gone mainstream and have benefits for both privacy and security online.
One particular use case for VPNs is when you use public Wi-Fi, which most of us do rather often. It’s astonishingly easy to hack people over public Wi-Fi, and criminals make use of this to quietly sit on the connections harvesting people’s login details.
By connecting to a VPN service first, on your phone, laptop or tablet, you encrypt your communications, so that any hacker sitting there will only see encrypted garbage. For a very small investment you get this additional peace of mind, plus various other privacy benefits, and the very useful side-effect of easy access to all kinds of global entertainment streaming services, regardless of your location. There are even some free services, but most come with significant limitations.
Not all VPN services are equal, so it’s definitely worthwhile to check reviews before choosing one.
People are becoming increasingly convinced that companies like Facebook and Google are listening to them, in part due to the laser-accuracy of some online advertising. However, the fact is that a lot of the time, we give away a tremendous amount of information just from our day-to-day internet use.
If this bothers you, you can instantly make it a lot harder for companies to learn about you by switching to a browser like DuckDuckGo.
However, you can go a lot further than this if you truly want to bolster your privacy. This recent study of secure browsers delves right into the detail and looks at how to choose and configure a web browser for maximum online privacy. If you want to make life hard for hackers and advertisers alike, there are plenty of steps you can take.
The hackers are definitely out there, and even if you follow every one of these steps to the letter, there’s still a chance they can win. However, they’re far more likely to go for the easy targets. The best advice, therefore, is to ensure you’re not one of them.
CEO and Founder at Mighty Shouts.
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