I realize that most people focus their new year’s resolutions on weight loss, exercise, or money management but I firmly recommend a few cybersecurity improvements as well. Here is a shortlist of some quick fixes and lifestyle changes that can help you better protect your system, identity, and other valuable data in 2013.
1. Change your passwords. There’s lots of research to indicate that most people use simple passwords or choose one strong password and use it all the time. Neither one of these practices is safe. As you access your on-line accounts this January, change every password, use a string of 7-10 characters, and make each one unique. Henceforth, repeat this process often depending upon the value of the account. While this is a good best practice, don’t believe for a second that you are protected as the whole user name/password model is extremely vulnerable and due for some type of replacement. See this excellent Wired magazine article (http://www.empowernetwork.com/earthgrid/blog/wired-magazine-password-mat...) for more details on why passwords are the cybersecurity equivalent of bringing a knife to a gun fight.
2. Change your security software settings. I’m assuming you are running Internet security software on your system. If so, go into the system settings and check your protection level. In many cases, security software provides three options (low, medium, and high), with medium being the default. Change this setting to high or whatever other label your security software vendor uses for maximum protection. Many people believe that this maximum setting will slow system performance but if your PC is 2 years old or newer, you shouldn’t notice a difference.
3. Explore other software security options. I’ve found that most users really never look at the capabilities built into their Internet security software. This is a crying shame and it leaves users far more vulnerable than they could be. Security software from vendors like Kaspersky Lab, McAfee, Symantec, and Trend Micro (amongst others) have built-in features for things like proactive defense, password management/storage, virtual keyboards, automated malware quarantine, etc. Take the time to see what options are available and start using those that will enhance protection without getting in your way.
4. Delete old software. PCs, smart phones, and tablets are just about the only things we buy that come loaded with stuff we don’t want and will never use. Most people just ignore this garbage on their systems but stale software could be vulnerable to an attack. Take the time to get rid of it.
5. Manage the Windows white flag. If you are using Windows 7 (and perhaps Vista though I’m not sure), there is a little white flag icon on the bottom right of your system. When you mouse over it, it says, ‘solve PC issues.’ When you see this flag, take the time to remediate these problems. It’s not there by accident.
6. Explore system utilities and security add-ons. In addition to seeing what features you already have in your security software, you may want to add some additional capabilities. For example, registry cleaners can help detect rogue registry settings that may indicate the presence of malware. Note that they won’t clean up the malware but they may delete a registry key that the malware depends upon. You may also want to look at browser sandboxing tools and evaluate some Advanced Malware Detection/Prevention (AMD/P) endpoint security tools from vendors like Invincea, Malwarebytes, and Sourcefire. These tools are generally used in work environments but some vendors offer consumer versions as well.
A good friend of mine thinks of the Internet in the same way he used to think of the old Combat Zone here in Boston. Before it was cleaned up, this was the area of Boston known for adult entertainment, dive bars, and seedy individuals. You visited the Combat Zone at your own risk knowing there was always the potential to get ripped off or mugged.
Just like the Combat Zone of the 1980s, you need to be prepared for the risks you face every time you go on-line. These tips won’t guarantee your safety but they will certainly improve your protection.