5 Easy Ways to Protect Yourself From Web Hackers and Eavesdroppers
The internet may be looking at, listening to your online activities
En español | During the pandemic, we've grown even more dependent on our devices to stay in touch, get work done and remain entertained.
We're shopping and banking online; viewing and sharing recipes; and getting news pushed to our phones, tablets, laptops and smart speakers. But with the increased reliance on tech comes a greater risk of being tracked, analyzed, marketed to or even scammed.
Whether your internet service provider, a search engine or social media giants are blatantly mining your data or cybercriminals are out to defraud you through computer viruses, phishing scams or ransomware, your privacy, security and sanity are at stake.
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The good news is you don't need to be Bill Gates to fight back. Consider these simple ways to stop cyber-snoopers in their tracks.
1. Use a VPN
Many of us choose the “private” or “incognito” mode when opening a web browser because it deletes your history and trackable cookies after your surfing session. But be aware your online activity is still visible during your time online. This information can be tracked, saved and shared or sold to third parties.
While private browsing prevents information from being automatically stored on your device, everything you do is still visible to your internet service provider. Websites you visit can see your IP address, which gives them your approximate geographical whereabouts, and identifies your device.
Instead, install a reputable virtual private network (VPN), which provides anonymity when browsing online. Popular VPN options include ExpressVPN and NordVPN.
An up-to-date security suite should also help you keep away from prying eyes.
2. Create strong passwords, pass phrases
Remember to have a strong password for all your accounts. Make it at least seven characters long and a combination of letters, numbers and symbols. You'll get bonus points for adding upper and lowercase letters.
Never use the same password for all your online activity. If a site or app is breached, then the bad guys have access to all your accounts. Password manager apps aren't a bad idea.
A pass phrase instead of a password is a good way to lengthen your passwords and give you a memory aid. Myd0gD#1! Is derived from “my dog Duke is No. 1."
For online banking and shopping apps, opt for two-factor authentication. It not only requires your password to log in but also a one-time code sent to your mobile device to prove it's really you.
3. Mute, unmute your smart speaker
While smart speakers are convenient for their instant responses to your queries, these digital assistants are always listening for their wake word — “Alexa” for Amazon Echo devices or “OK, Google” for the Google Nest or Google Home family. That means your virtual assistant is always listening.
If you don't feel comfortable with this fact, press the Mute button on top of the smart speaker or smart display. That turns the microphone off, so the device can't listen for its wake word. You can enable it whenever you have a request, so you'll have to be within arm's length when you want to use it.
While anonymized, also know your requests and commands are stored on each company's servers after you say them, which helps these companies gather data and improve services. You can delete the information any time:
For Alexa devices, log into your app on a smartphone or tablet and select Settings | Alexa Privacy | Review Voice History.
For Google devices, go to history.google.com. Click on the Settings icon, which looks like three stacked lines and also is called a “hamburger” icon, at the top left of the page. Go to Voice & Audio Activity and select a recording to delete.
4. Disable sharing to Facebook
The world's biggest social network doesn't have the best reputation for privacy and transparency. But to the company's credit, it released a tool last year for you to manage how your activity is tracked.
Called Off-Facebook Activity, this tool gives you a summary of activity that businesses and organizations share with Facebook about your interactions, such as visiting their apps, games, or websites (often when you log in with your Facebook ID), and lets you turn off that tracking.
To review your off-Facebook activity:
Log into Facebook.
Tap the hamburger icon or down arrow at the top right, depending on your device
Tap Settings & Privacy | Settings | Your Facebook Information | Off-Facebook Activity. Facebook says you will see a summary of your activity that Facebook receives, but it may take a few days for recent activity to show up.
To turn off this tracking, tap or click where it says Manage Your Off-Facebook Activity. You can also select Clear History and More Options to download your information or manage future activity.
5. Don't forget about your webcam
We're now accustomed to using Zoom and other apps for video chats, so be sure to take precautions to avoid having your camera compromised.
If you use an external webcam, one that plugs into your computer's USB port, connect it only when you need it.
If your camera is built into your laptop, pick up a lens cover, which may be available at your local dollar store or is a low as $3 for 2 on Amazon. For a camera built flush into your screen, use a double layer of tape to block the tiny lens, but don't leave it on forever because it could gum up.
If an app tries to access your camera, some cybersecurity software solutions, such as ESET, have webcam detection.
If you need your computer repaired, take it to a trustworthy source. An ill-intentioned technician could secretly install spyware on your laptop.
If you want to control which apps use your computer's webcam, go to the Appleicon on Macs | System Preferences | Security & Privacy | the Privacy tab | Camera or, on a Windows machine, type Settings in the search box at the lower left corner of the screen and type Camera privacy settings to see which of your apps has access to your camera. You can click a toggle switch to turn off access to a particular app.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.