No question, we are living in the age of the hacker. WikiLeaks exposed the secrets of the global intelligence community. Anonymous did a solid for the Egyptian Revolution by crashing government websites. Hacktivist The Jester went to war with the Westboro Baptist Church. And right on schedule, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, starring Rooney Mara as badass fictional hacker Lisbeth Salander, drops on DVD and Blu-ray next Tuesday, March 20th. Not all hackers are so high-minded or ambitious, however. Many just want your personal information for nefarious purposes. Employ these six expert-recommended methods to stop them.
1. Secure Your Passwords
A lot of people use the same password for everything. That’s risky, because once hackers snag that one code, they get access to all your accounts, says Mark Herschberg, CEO of financial research site ZepFrog and an MIT-trained cryptography expert. Instead, use unique passwords for any sites that contain detailed personal info, and put them all in an encrypted file you store off-site, on a file-hosting service. If you must share them, use two different formats. For example, email your username and text your password. That way the two are not in the same place. Don’t even write them both down on the same piece of paper.
2. Nuke That Data
Even data on old computers and phones can leave you exposed to hackers, warns Ashley Podhradsky, an assistant professor of Computing and Security Technology at Drexel University. Deleting old files isn’t enough, because when you delete a file, you aren’t actually getting rid of it. Rather, you’re telling your computer that it’s OK to overwrite the space formerly occupied by a file. A savvy hacker can retrieve the information. “You need to properly sanitize your computer or mobile phone before you sell it or give it away,” Podhradsky advises. She recommends the open-source program DBAN (Darik’s Boot and Nuke) to erase all sensitive data from an electronic device before parting with it.
3. Update Regularly
You know all those software update requests that you ignore? Stop ignoring them. “Patch your applications, not just your operating system,” says Steve Santorelli, a cybercop who has worked with Scotland Yard’s Computer Crime Unit and Microsoft. “Make sure you update Adobe and Microsoft applications and your browser as soon as possible after updates become available.” As older protections are easier to crack, he further recommends updating anti-virus software and using a modern browser with lots of built-in defensive technologies to keep your computer safe. We’re looking at you, PC users. (Mac users probably jumped to the next tip about two sentences into this one.)
4. Skip the Sketchy Wi-Fi
It’s obvious that you should secure a wireless network if you have one. But you also shouldn’t use open wireless networks provided by others. It’s an easy way for hackers to steal your information and confidential data along with it. Pay for Internet and lock down your connection. The little bit of money you save by using free wi-fi just isn’t worth it.
5. Defend Your Drives
It’s not just your computer and mobile device that hackers want into. It’s also flash drives and external hard drives. Podhradsky recommends encrypting them with TruCrypt or Bitlocker, the latter of which comes with Windows 7. Further, lots of photocopiers and scanners save information as well. When you get rid of them, take them to a professional who can ensure that all sensitive data, such as information on tax forms, is erased.
6. Avoid Dodgy Downloads
That hot chick who added you on Twitter for no reason and sends you nothing but t.co links is to be avoided like the plague, as are many shortcuts to free content. “Torrents and other free services that share music, movies and other content might save money, but who knows what you’re downloading?” notes Joseph Steinberg, a cybersecurity expert and CEO of Green Armor Solutions, a vendor of online authentication information-security software products. “Those tempting files could actually be a backdoor for hackers.” In other words, forking over five bucks for Louis CK’s comedy special is totally worth it in terms of security alone.