Privacy is a big concern these days. Everyone wants to keep their personal information private and safe from hackers, government agencies, nosy neighbors or other people. What are some ways you can make your phone, computer and home more secure?
Q. What can I do to make my phone more secure?
A. Do you use an Android or iPhone device? If so, there are some neat apps you can install to make your device more secure. Try installing:
It’s a free app that provides end-to-end encryption for text messages and voice calls. It’s produced by the people who made TextSecure and RedPhone (see below). It uses your existing phone number and works on all phones running Android 4.0+.
This app allows you to send encrypted texts (it uses the Signal protocol). It also supports group texts, photos, videos, and file attachments. It’s free, open-source and works on any Android phone running 2.x or higher (if you have an older phone then you can use the XMPP protocol).
This app allows you to encrypt voice calls made from your Android device. It uses the Signal protocol to do this. It’s only available for Android devices running 2.3 or higher.
Orbot: Proxy with Tor
Tor hides your location on the internet by sending your internet traffic through a network of computers around the world (called onion routers). This makes it harder for websites and internet providers to track where you’re going and what you’re doing. If you have android, this is the first app you should install. It will make all your other apps more secure and private by running through the Tor network.
It’s a Firefox-based web browser for Android that connects through Tor (see above). It has some limitations compared to other browsers (it doesn’t support plug-ins or HTML5), but it’s more secure than regular browsers since it uses Tor to hide your identity from websites.
This is a new app that allows you to browse the web anonymously. It’s only available for Android at the moment, but there are plans to make an iOS version as well.
This secure browser blocks tracking cookies and removes ad networks from web pages (it does this by creating a VPN that routes your traffic through its own server). If you install this, chances are it will make your internet connection faster since it won’t be “bogging down” your connection with ads.
Ghostery blocks “trackers” used by online advertisers to monitor your behavior. It also protects against browser fingerprinting (which is a technique that can be used to identify you based on the hardware and software configuration of your computer). It can be used to block ads, but it also lets you see what’s being blocked on each page you visit so you can choose which elements to block.
This is a new browser for Android that has the same features as Ghostery (see above), but it also includes a “Intelligence Mode” which automatically blocks all trackers and lets you browse the web anonymously.
This is an anti-malware app that comes with some extra ad-blocking features, including protection against malware and ransomware. It’s available for free on Android and iOS.
Do you want to make your phone more secure without installing extra apps? If so, there’s a few things you can do. Try doing these things:
- Enable a strong passcode lock (with a long, hard-to-guess number code). Passwords with numbers and letters are harder to crack than passwords made up of only letters.
- Don’t install apps from third-party app stores that aren’t well known or reputable (Not all third-party app stores are bad, but not all of them are good either). Some third party app stores may include malicious code in their apps, or they may collect your personal information and sell it to other companies for profit.
- Make sure you’re using an updated operating system. It’s easy to get infected with malware when you’re using an outdated operating system (even if your current operating system is “secure”).
- Only download apps from official sites (like Play app store). Android apps are not generally allowed in other app stores, so downloads from those sites are risky.
- Enable a secure connection for your phone’s internet. Because all of your data passes through the internet, it’s important that you use a secure connection when browsing the web and downloading files. For example, some devices on the market allow you to use 128-bit SSL encryption with no password. That’s secure, but it still puts your personal information at risk (it’s just hard to crack). You should use a VPN that uses military-grade 256-bit or 384-bit encryption (the best ones come from established companies like Private Internet Access).
The only way to make sure you’re completely safe online is to use the bare minimum of data. This means getting rid of things like your Twitter account and Facebook profile. Unfortunately, you can’t do that. But you can make the rest of your online life much safer by using these apps and doing these other things on your phone; it’ll help you avoid losing money or being hacked.
Q. What can I do to make my computer more secure?
A. Here are a few things you can do:
Disable all unnecessary software
Be careful about what software you install. Everything you install has the potential to put your computer at risk by exposing your personal data or giving hackers access to your computer’s vulnerabilities. Use free software that is open source and comes with a “restrictions” option where you can safely disable features if you’re not using them (see the section on “Open Source Software” below for more information).
Patch your operating system
Malware is usually designed to work on specific versions of Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OS X, and Linux (the operating systems used by most computers). Make sure the latest patches for your operating system are installed.
Secure your web browser
All of your information is stored online, but the same thing that makes internet browsing easy makes it a target for hackers. You should use a browser that is designed with security in mind (like Mozilla Firefox and Brave) and that has strong privacy features, like HTTPS encryption (which scrambles all of your browsing information). You can also use tools like NoScript to keep malicious code from running on your machine.
Don’t use public Wi-Fi
Hackers can access any public Wi-Fi network to spy on you, post messages on behalf of you, and do all sorts of bad things to you. Don’t leave your computer unattended on a public Wi-Fi network, and be careful when using any public Wi-Fi.
Limit online access
If you’re going to do social networking or share personal photos, keep your computer locked down and only log in at particular times of the day. You can set up separate computers for different purposes — like for work and play — and limit which sites are accessible while you’re logged in, like by using a free feature called “LogMeIn” that works with Google Chrome and Firefox.
Q. What is the best software to protect my computer from hackers?
A. No software can keep your computer absolutely secure from hackers, but there are some good programs to use. I like a program called “Kaspersky” which provides a suite of security tools for your modem, laptop, or desktop computer. The suite includes anti-virus and anti-malware protection, parental controls, firewall and network vulnerability protection, spam filtering, backup options, and other tools. They even have a free version of the software that lets you check out some of the features without buying the full version.
Q. Is it legal for companies to share data about me?
A. Not unless you specifically give them the right to do so. It’s against the law for a business to share your data, unless they’ve got your permission. The DMCA is pretty specific about how this can be done. It says that any computer-based service that lets you upload or post something online has to ask for permission before sharing that information with anyone else. When asked, you need to tell them who else will have access to it, and what they’ll be able to do with it after the fact.
Q. How can I protect my privacy online?
A. I can’t tell you what to do, but I can provide a number of suggestions based on my own experience. Here are some tools and tips that will help you take back some control of your privacy online:
- Set up passwords, or at least use password managers. Never share your password with anyone (not even with those who claim to be helping you). Instead, use a different password for every computer and website you use. This ensures that no one can access all the computers and accounts by logging into one site with the same password. A good choice is LastPass, an online service that lets you create and store passwords on their secure server so they aren’t stored on your computer. You can also use a password manager to create and store passwords for you. They’re generally very safe, since they use the same encryption schemes as websites like Twitter and Facebook use.
- Use “HTTPS” to encrypt your web activity (HTTPS means “hypertext transfer protocol secure”). This is what all of the web uses now (even Google). It scrambles all of your browsing information so it can’t be intercepted or forwarded. When visiting a website, look for this address in the URL: https:// instead of http://.
- Select a strong cloud storage service like Dropbox or OneDrive that encrypts your files when they’re sent there and stores them on their servers. Dropbox and OneDrive use 256-bit AES encryption, which is the same kind of encryption used by governments to protect their confidential information (there’s also a number of other ways they make it difficult for someone to access your files).
- Use a “virtual private network” (or VPN) when you’re on public Wi-Fi. While it’s true that using public Wi-Fi is not secure, you can use a VPN to maintain your privacy (a VPN masks your IP address and encrypts all of your traffic so no one else can see what you’re doing). I use Private Internet Access, which is free for up to 3 devices.
- Install an ad blocker in your web browser. There are free and paid versions of ad blockers. Ad blockers work by blocking companies from tracking your activity online, which keeps them from collecting information about you. The best ad blockers can block ads in all the different ways they’re served up to you (some block ads that are embedded in web pages, others block ads that are embedded in videos). Some common ad blockers include AdBlock Plus, uBlock Origin, and NoScript.
- Use the open source software Audacity to record conversations you have with companies who violate their terms of service. I use a program called Jabber on my computer that lets me record my calls with other people using a headset or microphone (it’s free to use). If you have a smartphone, use an app like RecordRTC or TapeACall that lets you record calls on your phone (I use the TapeACall app for my iPhone).
Q. What can I do to secure my online accounts?
A. You need to use strong passwords and consider two-factor authentication. A strong password is one that describes you (like your birth date). An example of a strong password is “2O6l7t8aHb29s” (the numbers represent your birth month and day for the first part of the password, and then you add numbers from one to nine for the second part of the password). You can’t use the same password for multiple accounts. Two-factor authentication is where you usually have to provide more information (like a code) after you enter your password. For example, getting a text message or an app in your phone that requires a code before it allows you access to your account.
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