The openness of the Internet has dramatically transformed global communications, making it possible for people around the world to easily exchange information. But the very same openness also creates an enormous problem. Anyone can access the network, yet not everyone has good intentions. Some engage in malicious mischief by unleashing destructive software, while others view hacking computer networks as a sport. Then there are people with criminal intent.
To avoid becoming a victim of misguided pranksters or cyber criminals, take the time to examine the security of your personal data. Here are some recommendations, along with links to more detailed information:
A 2009 study by Consumer Reports estimates the cost of cybercrime to U.S. consumers at $8 billion.
1. Use anti-virus software.
Viruses spread rapidly and can damage or destroy your computer. New ones appear daily. It's critical that you install and update anti-virus software regularly. Use the program to scan all the files on your system once a week, deleting the infected ones.
2. Be wary of e-mail attachments.
A virus can hide in an attachment. Opening it unleashes the virus. Don't open an attachment from anyone you don't know. Even if you do know the sender, an infected attachment may have been surreptitiously sent from an infected machine. The safest thing to do is to scan the attachment with anti-virus software before you open it and to only ever open attachments you expect to see attached to the email.
3. Install a firewall on your computer.
A firewall is a software program that blocks unauthorized access to your computer. Most modern operating systems, including all versions of Windows starting with XP and Apple OS X, have built-in firewalls. Make sure they're activated if you use those operating systems. If not, try ZoneAlarm. You can download it for free for personal use from ZoneAlarm.
4. Protect your passwords.
Many online services, such as banking, brokerage, and e-mail require the use of passwords. A secure password is the first line of defense against cyber snoops. Use a different password for each account, don't divulge them to anyone and change them periodically.
5. Keep your browser and operating system updated.
You've probably read about security “holes” that turn up periodically. Once they're discovered, you can download fixes. Modern operating systems and browsers are all capable of downloading and installing patches automatically as soon as they are released. Make sure you have this feature enabled.
6. Back up your data.
Make copies of your files in case they become corrupted, your system fails or your computer is damaged or stolen. Get in the habit of doing this regularly, at least once a week. Better yet, set your system to automatically back up your files.Learn more.
7. Log off when you're done for the day.
You are most vulnerable when connected to the Internet. If there isn't a good reason to remain online, disconnect from the network, especially if you'll be gone for an extended period of time.
Follow these tips to enhance your personal security and the health of your PC.
Security Tips for Parents
You may have heard stories about children and teenagers being exploited online by sexual predators. However, considering the tens of millions of kids who use the Net daily, the frequency with which these incidents occur is very small. Yet they do happen.
There are smartphone apps – with names like Secret Folder, Private Vault, and Secret Apps – that can hide applications, pictures, videos, messages, and more. Don't assume that what you can easily see on your child's smartphone, is all there is to see.
While downright exploitation is rare, access of adult content by teens is surprisingly common. Some surveys indicate that as many as 9 out of 10 boys, and 6 out of 10 girls, have accessed content of a sexual nature online before the age of 18. More disturbingly, the same survey indicated that a significant minority of teens had accessed content of a violent sexual nature.
While that sort of information may lead you to want to disconnect your internet connection and get rid of your smartphone, it’s important to remember all of the positive social connections and the intellectual curiosity spurred on by the internet. So before you make any rash decisions read on to learn how you can keep an eye on the content your children access, while still giving them a reasonable degree of privacy and autonomy online.
Pitfalls and Dangers
What are the most common risks kids face online? While sexual content and predators earn most of the headlines, in actuality there are several risks you need to be aware of.
- Sexual predators: Social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and smartphone apps like Whisper and Tinder, are used heavily by teens, as well as by predators who may try to befriend and meet up with an unsuspecting teen.
- Mature content: Some of it is legal for viewing by adults, and some it is illegal for viewing by anyone, but all of it is considered inappropriate for anyone under the age of 18. Many online communities, such as Tumblr and Reddit, contain a combination of harmless material as well as adult content. While explicit content is usually labeled as such, it is likely that a child using these types of sites will regularly have the opportunity to access adult content even if they aren’t intentionally seeking it out.
- Harassment and bullying: There have been many cases of cyberbullying that resulted in horrible outcomes.
- Reputation damaging information: Once an inappropriate picture or thoughtless Tweet is posted it can be impossible to delete, and have professional, educational, and personal repercussions for years to come.
- Identity theft: Your child can be a victim of identity theft whether they do anything wrong or not, but being educated about the possibility can reduce the risk of making a blunder with expensive consequences.
- Malicious content downloads: Malicious downloads are typically packaged to look like legitimate applications and content. However, downloading them can let a hacker steal information from your computer, cause irreparable damage, and at a minimum create a messy situation that has to be cleaned up.
- Legal risks: Teens have always had a penchant for sexual exploration with their peers. In the internet age, that exploration has gone digital with the rise of sexting. However, possessing and sending explicit content depicting an underage person is a crime, and one that kids have been arrested for in the past.
Just like in the real world, parents must exercise supervision. Being engaged in what your kids are doing online is the most important step to take to protect them against harmful content, and dangerous situations. Here are some practical steps to take to connect to your kid’s life online.
- Understand the technology: Know the difference between a browser and an app. Know what the apps on your kid’s smartphone are for, including apps like Poof that hide apps your kids may not want you to see. Learn what an in-app browser is, which apps have them, and understand that is is virtually non-monitorable and unfilterable.
- Use common sense: Don't just get an Internet account and turn them loose.
- Monitor their activity: Develop an open-access policy where they understand you may access their computer or device at any time. Ask them which sites they visit and why. Keep in mind that virtually all internet browsers have features that make it easy to hide activity, so don’t depend on checking the browser history.
- Set limits: It's up to you to determine when your kids can go online and how much time they spend.
- Use filtering software: Although not perfect, you can block selected websites. Consider products like Cyber Patrol, CYBERsitter, and Net Nanny. Keep in mind that not all software works on all devices and take a device-by-device approach to filtering if you plan to filter content.
- Ask your kids to agree to common-sense rules: Don’t divulge financial or personal information without prior approval. Come to you immediately if something they see or experience online makes them uncomfortable. Never meet anyone they communicate with online without your involvement in the process.
- Keep an open line of communication: It’s important that your kids feel that you are someone they can come to without facing harsh judgment. Don’t just explain the risks once and then walk away, stay engaged in their digital life without being overbearing, and have a continual dialogue about the sites they visit. You might even learn about sites and apps you yourself would like to use.
The internet offers countless opportunities for your kids to make strong social connections, to feed their curiosity about the world around them, to develop skills that will launch them into lucrative careers, and to learn about any topic under the sun (or beyond the sun!). However, all of this information and connectedness doesn’t come risk-free, but you can minimize the risk that your child will become one of the fear-inducing statistics we’ve cited and linked to in this article by taking the steps we’ve suggested.
At the end of the day, keeping your kids safe online really boils down to four simple concepts:
- Educate yourself and your child about the risks posed by the internet.
- Know when and how they’re accessing the web.
- Trust them to make good decisions.
- Check in with them periodically and maintain an ongoing conversation about how they are using the web.
Frequently Asked Questions
What if I'm using a public PC? Are there additional steps I should take?
When you use a public PC you should limit your browsing of password-protected sites as much as possible. If you must access a password-protected account, your goal should be to leave no trace of your activity on the PC. In order to do this, right click on the browser icon and open the browser using a setting called Private Browsing or Incognito Mode. This will prevent the browser from storing information about your activity. In addition, go ahead and delete the history and temporary Internet files including all cookies before you log off. Check out this article for more tips on staying safe on a public PC.
Will following these tips keep me safe when shopping online?
The tips in this article are intended to keep your computer safe and secure. However, staying safe while shopping online is an entirely different topic that deserves its own coverage. We have other resources at Learn the Net that can help you get a handle on staying safe while shopping online including this series of articles that dives deep into this important topic.