Student filling out answers to a test with a pencil.

The first-ever computer virus that was widely spread was called Cookie Monster. Like its Sesame Street namesake, it was always hungry. So, it would lock up your computer until you type “cookie,” and the only way to stop it was to give it something better. That is, all you had to do to get rid of the virus was to type “Oreo.” 

These days, when we do most of our shopping, learning, and working online, the threats to our data are much more severe. Even though data centre safety is very high and robust, there are some things that you could – and should – do yourself to keep your data safe. 

Have antivirus software and keep it up to date  

As mentioned above, malicious people and malicious software are getting more and more dangerous every single day.

There are Trojans, the viruses that seem like valid programs, but behind the scenes, steal your private information. Next, there is ransomware, which encrypts your files and demands payment to restore them. Bots can take control over your computer and its resources and use it for bitcoin mining or as a weapon in a cyberattack, while keyloggers keep track of the things you type on your keyboard to gain access to your passwords. And the list goes on and on.

Sure, you can always rely on the Windows Defender Security Center that comes bundled with Windows, but it’s still better to be safe than sorry. Some free variants of popular antivirus software that you could install on your PC include Avast and AVG antivirus. They do a much better job in defending you against viruses than Windows ever could on its own. Just make sure that the software is up to date and scan your entire computer regularly. 

Use unique passwords for different purposes

One of the easiest ways hackers steal information is getting a batch of username and password combinations from one list and trying those same combinations elsewhere. The only way to prevent one data breach from having a disastrous effect like this is to use a strong and unique password for every single online account you have.

While you can try and remember all those unique passwords, a much better way to do things would be to get a password manager. It’s software that creates strong passwords and logs you in automatically, so all you would have to do is remember one master password. Fortunately, there are a few free password managers that can get the job done. 

One more important thing when setting up passwords is to enable two-factor authentication wherever possible. 

This type of protection adds an extra layer between you and potential attackers by requesting you enter a code that comes as a text message or via email before letting you log into your account. It also might require something more unique to you, like a fingerprint scan or face ID. 

Either way, this is an easy option to raise your online security to a new level. Most popular sites support 2FA – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Amazon, Dropbox, Github, and more.

Have a backup of your data 

To avoid the ransomware attack mentioned above or simply protect your essential data from some sort of failure, it would be smart to have all of your data backed up. 

To do so, you can use a free solution like Dropbox or iCloud. If the free space these services offer is not enough for you, there is usually a fee that you can pay on a monthly or annual basis to get some extra storage. 

While this option is fine, especially considering that most of these cloud-based services come with a high level of security of their own, consider having a physical copy of your essential data as well. USB drives are growing in capacity, while portable hard disks are becoming more and more sturdy, large, and cheaper with every new generation. All things considered, there is no reason against having a hard backup of your important data. 

Beware of public Wi-Fi

While most home Wi-Fi connections are encrypted, some public Wi-Fi connections are not. This means you’re at risk of people monitoring your online activity. Sometimes, malware from someone else’s device can infect your device. Make sure you’ve turned on your firewall and have up-to-date malware protection, or you could run into problems. Delete data that you no longer use.

Sidenote – when you are on a public network, try to avoid entering your passwords. Similarly, if you are using a public computer or someone else’s device, make sure you are signed out of all the accounts you might have been using. 

Encryption is the key 

Some sites do take care of your privacy and security. A “lock” icon on the address bar of your internet browser means your information will be safe when it’s transmitted. Look for the lock before you send personal or financial information online.

This is not a universal measure, so keep your browser secure. To guard your online transactions, use encryption software that scrambles information you send over the internet. One elegant feature of encrypted data is the fact that the only person that can unscramble it is the one that has the key – and that would be you. Without a proper key, not even the site admins can see your encrypted data.

Beware of phishing attempts

Phishing is an attempt to trick victims into giving away their credentials. Phishing websites mimic banking and other sensitive sites hoping that somebody would enter their username and password. Once they get your data, some may even redirect to the actual site. Don’t give your identity away. If you get an email apparently from your bank, don’t click any links. Instead, log on to the bank’s site directly.

It can be a problem in the workplace, too. Malicious individuals and groups send persuasive emails designed to fool employees or executives into giving away their passwords or even transferring money onto their accounts. You should therefore remain alert when using your work email as well.