Answers to 5 Computer Security Questions Readers Keep Asking
After my contemporary thriller Kill Big Brother came out readers started asking how they can protect themselves online. Many more also called into radio shows I was a guest on. As I began answering, radio show hosts would often ask me to stay on for another segment because the phone lines were lighting up. Over time I found people were mostly asking the same five questions—and they are important and topical questions. All of this, of course, has a lot more to do with stopping online identity thieves, hackers and other criminals trying to install malware (even ransomware) on our computers than it does with Fourth Amendment privacy issues. But these security measures can protect us either way.
1. How should we do online banking?
The smartest way is to have one computer that’s solely used for online banking. You should not surf the internet, check your email or do anything else with this computer. Make sure this computer is kept updated with the latest security patches. A good computer for this purpose is a tablet, as they can be less expensive and easy to put away.
2. Can we stop the data collection on our private lives?
Yes. The easiest way is with a Virtual Privacy Network (VPN). Today, even your local internet service provider (ISP) can record and sell your search activity. A VPN does more than prevent the same ads (from some website we visited) from following us around the internet. Our surfing data could be subpoenaed for a legal action (a divorce case, a civil suit…) and used for many other purposes. Basically, a VPN creates a secure, encrypted connection between your computer and a server that’s operated by the VPN service you hire. The IP address of your computer is hidden, as all anyone will see be the VPN company’s address. There are a lot of VPN companies to choose from. I’ll get into them in a later column.
3. Should we ever use public networks?
Yes, but with caution. Again, a VPN can protect you. A coffee shop or restaurant’s free Wi-Fi basically allows anyone within a specified area to tune into a specific radio transmission. The thing is, “network sniffing” software, which is easy to find and download off the internet, gives people a chance to steal your personal information. To do so, a thief typically tries to “sniff” the four-way handshake (encryption key) used by the network. If the network administrator chooses a weak password or hasn’t updated the system in a while it might be easy for someone to quietly do this. This is why you should never do online banking on a public network or even have your passwords or other private information on a computer that you might use at a local hotspot.
4. What’s the safest way to pay for online purchases?
5. How do most attacks take place?