5 steps to protecting your privacy online

By Alan Cooper Time of article published Mar 23, 2015

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Durban – These are troubling times for anyone concerned about the security of their electronic data. Hardly a day goes by without news of another hack or some other form of cyber skulduggery on the part of criminals, corporations and even government agencies.

Recent highlights – or should that be lowlights – include…

* The Sony Pictures hack, which resulted in the theft of sensitive company data including employee e-mails, business plans and unreleased movies – among them the notorious The Interview.

* Revelation that the world’s biggest PC maker, Lenovo, had been shipping PCs and notebooks with an adware app called Superfish, potentially compromising the security of as many as 250 000 owners.

* Reports that US telecommunications giant AT&T plans to track and monetise its broadband customers’ internet activity to deliver targeted ads. Customers wishing to avoid the snooping will need to pay a $29 (R358) privacy premium.

You could be forgiven for throwing up your hands in resignation. After all, if a multinational like Sony is vulnerable, what chance does a humble individual have? But putting these five tips into action should make you safer than 99 percent of internet users.

Use an anti-virus

Some know-it-alls will tell you that you don’t need anti-virus software. Update your operating system regularly and avoid risky behaviour like clicking on dodgy e-mail links and downloading pirated movies and you’ll be fine, they advise. They’re wrong. Updates and careful browsing are not enough to keep you safe.

Your device can become infected simply by visiting a website, even one you trust. That’s because the site may have been taken over by hackers.

I use the free anti-virus software, Avast, but there are plenty of other good ones out there.

Pimp your passwords

I know. Passwords are a pain. The experts advise they should be different for every site or service you log into. They’re also supposed to be at least 10 characters long and contain no actual words – something like “pN*-z9[i9Wd,” a hack-resistant, unintelligible jumble of uppercase and lowercase letters.

The problem is they’re also much harder for ordinary mortals to remember. This is where a password manager like Dashlane or LastPass comes in. These apps automatically generate and manage hack-resistant passwords and keep them secure, but freely available to you from all your devices. All you have to do is remember a single master password.

Get two factor authentication

It’s all very well having a a strong password, but what if a hacker steals it from a third party, like a web retailer? That’s why many websites and online services now offer two-factor authentication along the lines of your bank, which requires you to enter a one time code sent via e-mail or SMS when you log in on a new device or try to add a beneficiary.

Find out which services you use offer two-factor authentication and enable it.

Use a dummy e-mail address

Set up a free webmail account for junk mail only. When companies or individuals you’d rather not hear from again demand an e-mail address, give them this one. Also, if those companies or people are hacked, your real account won’t fall into the wrong hands.

Don’t be afraid to fib

What’s the use of a cracking good password if a hacker can weasel it out of the company using easy to find answers to password recovery questions like your mother’s maiden name and your city of birth? If a company or service requires such information, fib or misspell it. Be sure to keep a note of this information though.

* Got any online privacy tips you swear by? I’d love to hear them. E-mail me at [email protected] or follow me on Twitter @alanqcooper.

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