With social networks working overtime to fight off fake news and fake users, data-harvesting apps sneaking onto the Play Store and some websites trying to turn your computer into a cryptocurrency generator, you may be getting a little anxious about the privacy of your personal data.
Thankfully, the process of getting your house in order isn't complicated or even time-consuming. You've probably been thinking about trying some of these things already, and you just haven't found the right time. The signs indicate that the right time can't wait much longer, at the rate things are going in the cybersecurity world. So here are five major things that you can do in a matter of minutes to boost your privacy online.
Get a password manager so you can stop using bad passwords everywhere
Unless you are a savant, your brain can only handle so much complexity when it comes to creating and then remembering a robust password. If you're like most people, your password is based on personal details that are trivial to figure out, like birthdays, street addresses and anniversary dates.
And we say "password" because you're also likely to be using the same one for multiple logins. Maybe you change a letter or number here or there, but let me tell you: When push comes to shove, this will not be enough.
Thankfully, you can defeat this bad habit in just a few clicks, thanks to password managers. These are apps and browser extensions where you only need to remember one "master password." The manager generates the rest of them, and you just paste these into a login screen when you need to.
The good managers even recognize what website you're on, and they'll present the correct entry, instead of requiring you to look it up. You won't even need to know the password that the manager generates -- just log into the manager, click the relevant entry and paste your password in the browser or app.
If you're logging into something on a mobile device, you'll also usually find an "Autofill" option if you long-press the location where you enter your password. Choosing this option should automatically open your password manager app and swap you over to it. Then you can copy and paste your password with a few taps.
Set up app-based two-factor authentication to protect your online accounts
For websites and services where you need to ensure the security of your account, like your bank, passwords alone simply are not enough anymore. In this scenario, you need two-factor authentication (2FA) -- specifically, the kind where a mobile app generates login codes for you. Not the kind where you are sent an SMS text message, because those can be intercepted or just fail to arrive.
With app-based 2FA, you log into an app or website like normal, then you open an app that generates a special six-digit code every 30 seconds. This authentication app is synced with the other app or service so that your code matches the one that the main app or service expects to get. You enter the code from the authenticator app into the app or website that's asking for it, and then your login is complete.
Google makes its own free authenticator app for iOS and Android. Unfortunately, there isn't a standardized method for setting up your account with 2FA. Amazon, PayPal, eBay and your bank will all use slightly different systems and terminology.
Arguably, the fastest way to getting them all up and running is to just do a Google search naming the website or app where you want to set up 2FA and adding the phrase two-factor authentication to your search request.
Set up a VPN or Tor to protect your internet connection from prying eyes
The last few years have seen an explosion of virtual private networks that are designed specifically for personal use. For those of you not familiar with a VPN, it creates an encrypted tunnel within your internet connection that's difficult for someone to intercept.
This is particularly important because Congress ended a privacy rule in March 2017 that prevented internet service providers (ISPs) -- like Comcast, AT&T and Charter -- from selling your browsing habits to advertisers. If you want them to keep their noses out of your internet connection, a VPN (or Tor) is probably your best bet.
In fact, with a VPN, the websites that you visit don't even get to see your personal IP address, nor can your ISP see where you're ultimately going. Comcast, for example, can only see that you're connecting to a VPN service, and the website you're visiting can only see the IP address of your VPN server. That kills a lot of location data harvesting practices in one fell swoop.
Tor is similar to a VPN. Instead of a paid service, its servers are donated to the network in the interest of collective privacy and security. The tradeoff is that Tor is not fast. It's built for anonymity rather than speed, so you won't be streaming 4K video from Netflix.
In fact, Netflix and other media streaming services generally take a dim view of VPNs and Tor, because these networks are frequently used and sometimes abused to get around regional content restrictions.
You can access Tor on Windows or MacOS through a web browser that's based on Mozilla Firefox (download for iOS or Android). Unfortunately, iOS still lacks an official Tor browser, due in part to Apple requiring all web browsers on iOS to use its own Safari app under the hood. However, there is an official Tor browser for Android.
Based on our testing over the years, you can probably trust IVPN (download for iOS or Android), NordVPN (download for iOS or Android) and ProtonVPN (download for iOS or Android). ProtonVPN is relatively new, but it's also a product of the same people who make ProtonMail (download for iOS or Android), which is one of the most respected high-security email services around.
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Set up a phone screen lock and keep your apps and operating system up-to-date
Your account security is only as good as the security that you use to lock down the devices that can connect to them. For mobile phones, this means having a legit lock for your lock screen. In the same way that passwords alone do not cut it any more, neither does swiping to unlock your phone.
Of course, at least on Android, the method to set this up varies from one phone to the next. But if your phone's settings section has a search function, try the phrase lock screen. This should pull up a shortcut to the section of your phone's settings that lets you set up a PIN code, fingerprint or facial recognition.
With a screen lock, someone who steals your phone doesn't have access to everything that it can do -- and it will lock out the generally nosy people around you. If you create an emergency contact on your phone, that will be accessible via the lock screen; so if someone finds your lost phone, or if you're in need of medical assistance and can't use your phone yourself, you're not out of luck.
Keeping your apps and operating system up-to-date helps to close security holes, sometimes before they're even publicly known. If the brand of phone you usually buy isn't updating your operating system several times a year, we'd recommend switching to a brand that takes your security more seriously.
For operating system updates, Apple is by far the best all-around choice in this department -- but not everyone likes iOS, iPhones lack headphone jacks, the devices can get eye-wateringly expensive, and services like Apple Messages can be difficult to disentangle yourself from if you want to switch to a non-Apple ecosystem.
On the Android side, Google's own Pixel phones get monthly security updates, though they're also lacking headphone jacks these days. If that's not a blocker for you, then a Pixel is a pretty good choice for phones that get updates. If you take a lot of photos, in fact, the Pixel 3 is generally regarded as having the best mobile phone camera on the market.
- Google's new encryption could bring more privacy and security to the masses
- Gmail vs ProtonMail: Is it time for email with higher security and privacy?
- Android Q may enhance security by restricting clipboard access to apps that need it
- Google, plagued by data and privacy issues, still rakes it in (CNET)
- Now this Android spyware poses as a privacy tool to trick you into downloading (ZDNet)
- 3 things businesses need to know about customer privacy expectations (TechRepublic)