There are plenty of people out there in the physical and online world’s that would like to get their hands on your personal data. Some to improve their ability to market new products and services to you, but some, more worryingly to steal your identity in order to commit further crimes. Fortunately there are also plenty of technologies to help you stay secure and by taking a few simple steps you can massively reduce your chances of becoming a victim.
All major browsers have built in security features which help to minimise the chances of your personal information being compromised. Whenever you supply sensitive information you should check that you are doing so on a secure connection and that the data is being encrypted to prevent anyone ‘eavesdropping’ and intercepting it. You will be able to tell if a page is secure because your browser will show the start of the address for the web page as “https” rather than just “http” (which tells you information will be encrypted) and there will be a full padlock symbol somewhere beside or in the address bar (signifying that the web server your information is being sent to is certified as belonging to the correct organisation). If the certificate that the web server has to provide is missing, invalid or (more commonly) out of date, your web browser will show you a warning and you should avoid supplying sensitive information in case it is actually being sent to another more dubious server.
Browsers also provide you with the ability to easily turn cookies on and off so if you wish to prevent websites from leaving them on your PC you can do so. There will be a setting which turns off all cookies but there will usually be a setting which allows you to specify which sites you do want to accept cookies from so that your favourite and trusted sites can still remember your preferences.
When it comes to transferring sensitive information, email should not be thought of as a secure medium. Even though more and more of the main email providers are making their services secure you never quite know what security is in place at the other end for your recipient. Another option, especially if you need to regularly communicate securely with a second location such as work, is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which in affect creates a secure tunnel across the internet from one machine to another. The information that is sent across is encrypted whilst each end of the tunnel will require authentication so that you know the information is secure in transit and only accessible at to the correct recipients. VPNs can be set up on any device so for example from a smartphone to a work computer.
The other vulnerability when it comes to people eavesdropping on your online activity is when you are connecting to the internet on a wireless network. On an unsecured network anyone can join the network and then hack onto you device (laptop, smartphone). However, wireless networks can be secured using a combination of encryption and a secure key or password. The most effective of these methods you should look out for use the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA & WPA2) protocols. Wireless networks can also be configured so that the id (MAC address) of each individual device must be specified by the network’s administrator before you can access it.
If your children are likely to be using the internet it is always a good idea to educate them about the risks of sharing information or having it pinched. However, if you still have concerns there are plenty of parental control programs (Windows 7 has one built in) that will allow you to control which sites your children can access, what type of content they can see and even when they can be online (so that you can then supervise).
All computers should have an anti-virus program installed (there are free ones available). Regular scans should be run to ensure that malware is less likely to end up on your computer and if it does, it is found, quarantined and deleted. Up to date anti-virus programs will identify any malware which is likely to access stored information on your PC or that is attempting to record your activity such as keystrokes in the hope of logging valuable information that you are supplying to other people.
Ultimately, as a user on the internet you need to be aware of the potential risks it may present from unwarranted marketing to identity theft. By being sensible with who you supply your information to and being up-to-speed with the latest tactics that cyber-criminals are employing you can still have a worry free online experience.