New year's resolutions to protect your technology

New year's resolutions to protect your technology

If 2017 taught you anything about personal technology, it's that the onus is on you to protect your personal data and devices.

Tech companies aren't going to do that for you. (In fact, they are generally the ones failing you.) So why not make protecting yourself your New Year's resolution?

Last year, I recommended some resolutions for making your tech less frustrating, like doing regular maintenance on your devices, being a strategic shopper and purging the e-waste sitting around your home.

But this year's cybersecurity nightmares, from the ransomware attack to the Equifax hack, underscored the need to protect yourself. Here are some recommendations for living a safer digital life this new year.

Update Your Software

One of the most damaging cyberattacks this year involved ransomware, a form of malicious software that locks up people's data and threatens to destroy it if a ransom is not paid. In May, the ransomware known as WannaCry affected more than 200,000 Windows computers in 150 countries. Security experts believe the malware spread through machines by getting people to download it via email.

Here's the kicker: Microsoft had already released a security update that would have prevented the WannaCry malware from infecting machines. But the hacked computers were behind on downloading the updates. The cybercriminals generally targeted hospitals, academic institutions, blue-chip companies and businesses like movie theatre chains. But this episode was an important reminder that keeping your software up to date is crucial.

This rule of thumb applies to anything that touches your information security: operating systems, antivirus software, your internet router, your password management app and your web browsers. Keep these important components up to date with the latest security enhancements, and you will be better off than most.

Read Privacy Policies

Amid Uber's laundry list of scandals, which included sexual harassment accusations and an undisclosed security breach, there was an important revelation that everyone can learn from. It involved Unroll.me, a free service that unsubscribes you from junk mail.

To gather intelligence about its competition, Uber bought information about its main rival, Lyft, from Unroll.me. How did Uber do that, exactly? Unroll.me scanned the contents of its users' inboxes and sold anonymized data, information that did not have individuals' names attached to it - in this case, emailed Lyft receipts - to Uber.

Many were shocked to learn about Unroll.me's business model. But the truth was always there in the fine print: The company's privacy policy clearly stated that "we may collect, use, transfer, sell and disclose non-personal information for any purpose" and that data can be used "to build anonymous market research products and services." Still, people were understandably outraged by the misleading nature of Unroll.me. A company that promised to rid you of spam mail scanned your inbox and sold information about you to other companies, including marketers.

So make it a habit to read a company's privacy policy. As boring as it sounds, a bit of reading will go a long way. I recently considered using a free internet service for sending a fax, and upon reading the privacy policy I learned that the company collects sensitive information like Social Security numbers and driver's license numbers. (I went out and found a traditional fax machine instead.)

Delete Unnecessary Apps

The Unroll.me episode also raised awareness of the sheer number of third-party apps that may be leeching off your personal information. There are probably apps and web services you don't remember downloading or subscribing to, and they could still have access to your data.

At least once a year, it's worthwhile to do an audit of your third-party apps. On your smartphone, delete apps that you have not touched in several months. For a clean break, in some cases, you will also have to visit the company's website and request that your account is deleted entirely.

Also check your primary online accounts, like Facebook, Twitter or Google, to see which apps are hooked into them. Chances are you have used those accounts to quickly sign up for a web tool or app. The ones you never use may still be leeching off your personal data, so you should disable them.

On Facebook, go to the settings page and click on the Apps tab to see which apps are connected to the account. On your Google account page, you can find a similar apps list labelled "Connected apps & sites." And on Twitter, go to the Apps page under "Settings and privacy."

On my neglected Facebook account, for example, I had 82 connected apps. After removing many unused or defunct apps, like LivingSocial, Words With Friends and Draw Something, I had 32 left.

Use a VPN

In April, Congress voted to overturn privacy rules that would have made it more difficult for broadband providers like Comcast and Charter to track and sell information about your browsing history to advertisers. The stronger privacy rules never went into effect, meaning nothing changed. But the privacy repeal underlined the sheer magnitude of data that internet service providers can collect and share with you. Subscribing to a virtual private network, or VPN is a meaningful safeguard for your online privacy.

When you browse the web, a broadband provider helps route your device's internet traffic to each destination website. Every device you use has an identifier consisting of a string of numbers, also known as an IP address. When you are on the internet, a service provider can see which devices you use and which sites you visit.

VPNs help cloak your browsing information from your internet provider. When you use VPN software, your device connects to a VPN provider's servers. That way, all your web traffic passes through the VPN provider's internet connection. So if your internet provider was trying to listen in on your web traffic, all it would see is the VPN server's IP address

VPNs aren't perfect. They often slow down internet speeds significantly, and some apps or services don't work properly when you are connected to a VPN. But everybody can benefit from using a private network, especially in certain situations, like connecting to an open Wi-Fi network at a cafe or an airport.

Protect Your Hardware

Smartphones like Apple's iPhone X and Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 reached several milestones this year. Their screens look terrific, and they are incredibly fast - and they are pricier than past smartphones. The iPhone X costs upward of $999, and the Galaxy Note 8 costs around $950. The downside is they are not more durable than previous phones.

The trend with these fancy new smartphones is to make the display take up as much of the face as possible. That means that a larger part of the body is composed of glass, which is susceptible to shattering. (The iPhone X even has a glass back so it can be charged wirelessly.) This trend is likely to continue because people love having more screen.

So now is a good time to start investing in protecting your smartphone. Get a case or a screen protector - or both. Screen protectors help protect screens from scratches, which weaken the structural integrity of a display and may eventually lead to large cracks. A good case will protect your phone from scratches and absorb impact in those areas when your device is dropped.

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