When you’re surfing the web, you can do a few simple things to stay safe and secure. First, look for “https” signals in your URL browser bar before entering any of your sensitive information on a website (the Chrome browser highlights the "https" in a bright green). Make sure your home Wi-Fi router isn’t on default security settings. Create your own, long network key and opt for "WPA-2" level encryption.
To make your online accounts and home Wi-Fi hack-proof, create long passwords by stringing together over five seemingly random words. This gives hackers’ programs fits, as they have to correctly generate many more characters before matching your password. These passwords are also easier for you to remember, since you’re human and use words, not W0Rd5!
There’s one thing about password security you almost certainly know you should do, but likely choose to avoid: Create unique passwords for each account you have. Don’t despair though — give your brain a break by allowing yourself to forget passwords for rarely-used sites. You only need to log in to HalloweenPartyPlanner.com so often. Simply plan to click “forgot password” when you do, and reset as needed.
General Web Browsing
Now, your home is a fortress, your passwords uncrackable. You’re on your way to hack-proof protection. However, hackers may target you directly through your web browser — Google Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, etc. Many malicious sites manipulate browser plug-ins like Flash Player to attack automatically when you access an infected site. Browsers including Chrome and Firefox now allow you to disable these features, making them “click-to-play” instead. You should activate this option to give yourself another chance to evaluate a website’s trustworthiness.
Social Networking and Personal Information
Social networking sites are treasure troves of data for hackers. Think of security questions and information needed to register new accounts: your birthday, the high school you attended, or a pet’s name. Now, all this information is shared freely in social networks. Protecting access to your profiles and restricting what you broadcast to the world is vital to remaining secure online.
Once compromised, hackers can employ this personal information to act — and spend money — as you. Protect yourself from this possibility by using credit cards when paying online (avoid debit or direct bank withdrawals). Consumer protection laws leave you liable for only $50 of fraudulent charges on your credit card, and card companies will often waive this fee.
When logging on at Starbucks, you run different risks than you do at home or work — 89% of public networks are unsecured. If your device has wireless sharing features (Apple’s AirDrop, Bluetooth, etc.), ensure these options are turned off. They’re an open invitation for hackers to snoop on your hard drive and take their pick of your data. You can also keep hackers at bay by limiting what you’re opening and checking. Do you trust that guy next to you in the coffee shop to post on your boss’ Facebook wall, transfer funds from your bank account, or buy items for you on eBay? If not, then don’t enter these passwords or access these accounts when you’re sharing the same network. There are just too many ways for another network user to snatch this data.
If cutting down public, unsecured internet usage isn’t an option, consider setting up a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN conceals your computer activity behind the wall of a server’s IP address. Free services like Hotspot Shield or LogMeIn’s Hamachi make setup relatively simple. With your VPN, you’ll still be safest if you only check news and other basic information, leaving personal data and social networking for secured access to trusted sites.
Now you’re set for hack-proof usage of the web. Use your best judgement on unfamiliar sites, and think before you share or input any information about yourself.
Nathaniel Boggs, Columbia Ph.D candidate in Computer Science and Systems Security, http://ids.cs.columbia.edu/users/nathaniel.html