1 Secure your email
Outlook and other email clients let you install a personal security certificate, which you can use to encrypt email so that only trusted recipients can read it, or digitally sign your messages to prove that they came from you. You can get your own certificate from comodo.com and it doesn’t cost a penny. The catch is that your recipients will need to be using a compatible email system – if they’re using Gmail on their smartphone, they’ll just be annoyed when you keep sending them unreadable strings of garbled data. “It also means you’ve got to protect your laptop,” points out Tony Anscombe, security “evangelist” at the antivirus firm AVG. “If your laptop’s stolen and your password is written on a Post-it note on the screen, then what’s the use of the encryption?”
2 Get virtual
Running programs in a virtual environment, rather than on your “real” desktop, makes it harder for viruses to sink their claws into your computer and if you do get infected, it’s easy to roll back your software to an earlier state. “It’s a complex thing to do,” warns Anscombe. “But there are benefits. If I wanted to download something that I was suspicious of, I might do that in a virtual machine, then disconnect the VM from the network before opening it.” Virtualisation isn’t a panacea, though. Many attacks are aimed at stealing your passwords and banking details; if you get tricked into revealing these, virtualisation won’t make a blind bit of difference.
3 Keep a second, secure PC
Many computer infections are caused by people unwittingly visiting untrustworthy websites or downloading malicious software. Keep your banking and payment details safe by designating a second computer – perhaps an old laptop – as your “secure” device and do your gaming, email and web browsing elsewhere. Switch it off when not in use, so even if an opportunist hacker does manage to get on to your network, they won’t be able to access your most important information. If you don’t have a spare computer lying around, then you can create a soft “wall” between your online accounts by installing a second browser on your main PC and using it only for secure transactions.
4 Clean out your system
If you must use Windows then it’s vital to ensure that only trustworthy software is running on it. Unfortunately, this can be tricky, as new laptops almost inevitably come preinstalled with a metric tonne of unwanted applications. These can get in your way, impede performance – and endanger your privacy and security by harvesting personal information. The good news is that Windows 10includes a new “Reset Windows” feature that reverts the OS to a freshly installed state, removing all extraneous software in the process. Make this the first thing you do when you buy a new laptop and you’ll be rid of all those bundled items for good. Be aware that this will wipe any personal files on the hard disk, along with bonus programs you might want to keep. A more surgical approach is to open up programs and features, scour the list of installed programs and remove any applications you don’t want or recognise.
5 Switch to hipster applications
It’s not just the operating system that’s vulnerable to attacks. Cyber-criminals can and do find security holes in applications of all sorts, which is why we’re constantly being nagged to install updates and patches. Just as you can avoid most viruses by switching away from Windows, you can reduce your risk by using less popular software that’s less likely to be targeted: for example, instead of Chrome you could switch to the Opera browser. Instead of Microsoft Office, consider LibreOffice (which has the additional benefit of being free).
Obscurity doesn’t necessarily mean security, however, warns Anscombe. “When you see an unfamiliar piece of software that you fancy downloading, you might not know if it’s no longer being updated. It may contain vulnerabilities that aren’t being patched.” If you choose the road less travelled, make sure your applications are being properly maintained or you could be leaving yourself more exposed than ever.
6 Browse the web incognito
A VPN (virtual private network) service lets you surf the internet from an assumed location. They’re popularly used to bypass regional restrictions on streaming video services; using a private channel also conceals exactly what you’re accessing, so your online activity can’t be tracked by your ISP, nor by hackers or government spies.
For the ultimate in security, consider using the Tor web browser (torproject.org), a free tool that routes your traffic through a maze of servers all over the world, making it effectively impossible for anyone to monitor or trace your activity. Tor is beloved of whistleblowers, political dissidents and criminals, but it can be frustrating to use: when all your connections are forwarded through China, Brazil and any number of other countries in between, websites tend to load very slowly indeed.
7 Set your router to a stealth mode
If a stranger can get on to your wireless network, there’s no end to the trouble they can cause. The primary way to stop them is to set a strong password, but you don’t need to stop there. Buried in your router’s configuration page, you’ll find the option to hide its SSID – that is, the name of your wireless network – so that only those who know its name can discover and connect to it.
You can also make it harder for interlopers to get on to your network by turning down the transmission strength, so that devices in neighbouring houses or outside on the street can’t get a good connection. “That helps ensure no one else can use your router, but it might mean you can’t either,” says Sian John, chief strategist for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at cyber-security firm Symantec. “Lowering the power makes life harder for hackers but also for the person in your spare bedroom wanting to watch Netflix at 2am.”
A more hands-on approach is to line party walls with a few layers of aluminium foil, which should drastically cut the signal strength to your neighbours. The security experts suggest that this is only for the truly paranoid, however. “You can put tin foil around your home if you want,” says John, “but it’s probably the household equivalent of putting a tin hat around your head.”
8 Don’t use Windows
Microsoft has been ramping up Windows’ security for more than a decade, with technologies such as Windows Defender and User Account Control blocking off old vulnerabilities. All the same, the vast majority of hack attacks and viruses target Windows: switch to a Mac, a Chromebook or even a Linux system and your exposure is instantly slashed. Don’t get complacent, though. “Windows has more threats because everyone uses it,” notes John. “As more people use Linux or Mac OS, the more the bad guys start targeting those platforms. What we see is people switch to, for example, a Mac and they think they don’t need any security software. So they get infected and the attacker gets full control of their system.”
9 Check your online footprint
Like it or not, there’s a huge amount of personal and professional data about all of us washing around on the internet. And it’s a huge security risk: a determined attacker could easily collect enough information to pretend to be you, or a close colleague, and gain access to things they shouldn’t.
If you’re worried about your online profile, companies such as London Digital Security Centre (londondsc.co.uk) will – for a fee – sweep the internet to find out exactly what’s out there and help you get sensitive items removed. “It’s the digital equivalent of a credit check,” says David Emm, principal security researcher at Kaspersky Lab. “If some stuff has been exposed that perhaps you’d prefer not to get out, perhaps a picture’s ended up somewhere and you don’t know how, then it’s something to think about.”
Prevention is, however, always better than cure. “Focus on what you’re sharing, and check the security settings on your social networks,” Emm advises: both Google and Facebook offer their own free “privacy check-up” services to help you avoid oversharing.
John adds a final piece of advice: “Google your own name and set up a Google Alert for yourself”, so that you receive a notification whenever a new mention of your name appears online. “It’s not vain to have alerts set for your own name and address. It’s amazing what you can find out.”
The Microsoft Cybercrime Centre in Washington.
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The Microsoft Cybercrime Centre in Washington has been set up to combat criminal hackers. Photograph: Jason Redmond/Reuters