Nearly 60% of the world’s population has regular access to the Internet, a figure that jumps to more than 85% for developed nations in Europe and North America, while the introduction and widespread adoption of mobile devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) means that the Internet plays a greater and greater role in our daily lives.
At the same time, fewer than 50% of respondents in a 2017 survey could correctly define basic terms like “ransomware” or determine the accuracy of statements like, “All email is encrypted by default,” or “all Wi-Fi traffic is encrypted by default on all wireless routers” (both of which are false). This lack of awareness makes it easier for cybercriminals to steal personal information and hack into businesses.
If you’re like most people, you use the Internet in professional and personal settings every day: sending emails, sharing and editing documents, posting photos on social media, and managing your finances. While any of these activities may seem innocuous, the fact of the matter is that cyber-attacks are on the rise, and your personal, financial and professional information is easy prey for hackers if you don’t take the right steps to secure your online activity.
In this guide, we’ll look at the top five must-use cybersecurity tools to make sure that your data is as safe as possible from prying eyes with dubious agendas.
One of the easiest ways you can improve your online security is by using a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. A VPN allows you to securely connect to a network in another location, acting like a middle-man between you and websites or services you access. Information you send and receive to the VPN is encrypted, so it cannot be read by third parties, and websites will see your physical location as that of the VPN server.
As a result, you can use public WiFi, like that found in a café or library, as you would your home network. Additionally, because many VPN services don’t monitor or record your connection to their servers, you’re granted (partial) anonymity while browsing the internet. Finally, because your true physical location is hidden, you can connect to geolocked content like Netflix.
Most Internet users have dozens of passwords to keep track of: social media, online banking and shopping, email accounts, work logins—the list goes on. Unable to keep track of multiple unique passwords of sufficient complexity, many people use the same password for multiple accounts. As a result, hackers perusing data breaches and password leaks—which happen with astonishing regularity—can gain access to multiple online accounts with just one password.
The solution is to use a password manager. These highly secure programs, available for your computer, smartphone, and tablet, store all your passwords in an encrypted and safe way. You only need to keep track of one master password, and the software takes care of the rest. Consequently, you can use passwords that are sufficiently long and virtually impossible to guess without having to remember them all, or worse, write them down somewhere.
Data Breach and Dark Net Scanner
Even if you use a password manager, though, leaks and data breaches are still an unfortunate reality. It’s important to regularly check the status of your passwords, to quickly uncover if your personal information is at risk. But how? Fortunately, there are a number of tools that will scan the internet and dark net (a portion of the internet hidden from most users) for your login details.
One of the most popular ways to do this is the HaveIBeenPwned.com website. Simply enter an email address, and the site will let you know if it appears in any of the hundreds of millions of leaked logins recorded to date. They and others have also built browser plug-ins for common browsers like Chrome, Safari, and Microsoft Edge. Finally, a number of good password managers (see above) have this feature built-in, which is just one more reason to use one.
Firewall & Virus/Malware Scanner
It’s just as important to protect information stored on your computer or mobile devices as it is to secure your online activity. The strongest passwords and most secure networks won’t count for much if a cybercriminal gains direct access to your hard drive, and given that more than 350,000 new malicious programs are created and sent out into the digital world every day, that’s a very real risk.
For this reason, it’s important to have a strong firewall in place, which protects your computer from malicious incoming or outgoing connections, and a good virus and malware scanner, to make sure no nefarious programs are hiding out on your hard drive. This is true not only for desktop and portable computers but also for smartphones and tablets, which require their own sophisticated mobile antivirus software.
Installing malware or spying on your internet activity aren’t the only way somebody can gain access to your files and personal information: physical theft of your laptop, phone, or tablet is another popular modus operandi of cybercriminals. With millions of laptops and mobile devices lost or stolen each year, there’s a decent chance it will happen to you at some point.
The most effective way to protect your data against physical theft is to use encryption software. Full Disk Encryption (FDE) uses a password or, increasingly, biometric data to encrypt your hard drive, making it virtually impossible for an attacker to gain access.
Considering that a recent study [PDF] by security research firm Ponemon found that encryption software brought down the average cost to businesses of a lost laptop by almost $20,000, good encryption software is a worthwhile investment.
Cyber attacks are on the rise, but a few simple tools can help individuals protect their personal information and help businesses mitigate the costs of data breaches and lost or stolen hardware. By making sure you’re using each of these five tools correctly, you’ll benefit from greater privacy and tighter security both on and offline.