Tips for Keeping Information Safe Online

by Alphild Dick, Adult Services Librarian

blog imagesMy very first email account was through AOL in 1996. I didn’t get much email–after all, I was a teenager and I hardly knew anyone outside of my small hometown, where we barely got internet service anyway. Still, I doubt I gave one single thought to Internet pitfalls; I freely made chatroom handles with my real (and distinctive) name and I used passwords so simple, they are the building blocks of preschool curriculum.

Almost twenty years, and numerous computer viruses later, I know a lot more about keeping myself and my personal information safe online. It’s a never-ending battle, though. Lately, it seems that every six months, there is something new to watch out for, whether it is the Heartbleed Bug, a virus that took advantage of a security flaw in OpenSSL, a popular data encryption standard, compromising millions of web users last winter; or the 1.2 billion (yes, billion) users who had passwords stolen by Russian hackers just last week.

The fact of the matter is that there is no one thing you can do to stay safe online. However, there are a number of simple things you can do to make yourself more secure, and decrease the risks to your personal information.

  1. Keep things updated: Making sure that your software and operating systems are up to date is a good first step to making sure your computer is safe. Viruses can be used against out-of-date software and operating systems, so use current versions to ensure you stay protected.
  2. Create strong passwords, and change them often: What makes a good password? The more complicated and difficult to guess, the better. There are lots of great resources on how to create a strong password. Here are some basic tips to get you started:
    1. Don’t use the same password for all of your accounts. This very important. Reusing passwords may make it easier for you to access your information, but it also makes it easier for hackers.
    2. Use a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols…but avoid using common strings like “mypassword” or “abcd1234.” While it is important to be able to remember your passwords, bear in mind that the more complex the password, the harder it is to break.
    3. Don’t use passwords linked to any kind of personal information, whether it is your birthday, Social Security number, or the year your first child was born.
    4. Change passwords regularly. Microsoft recommends every 30 to 90 days. Using a (paper) notebook to keep track of your passwords helps make this a less daunting task.
  3. Choose wisely when clicking on links: Not sure why your friend in Colorado would send you an email that says “OPEN THIS EMAIL?” Or maybe you don’t recognize the email sender at all? If there is anything that seems off or suspicious about an email or website, don’t open it. Always take the better-safe-than-sorry perspective on this issue.
  4. Never share your sensitive information (account numbers, passwords, etc.) with others, especially over social media or email.

These tips aren’t just meant for laptop or desktop computers, either. They absolutely apply to your tablet and smart phone. In fact, many of us are much less cautious when it comes to our mobile devices, even though they carry many of the same risks as computers.

If you are interested in learning more about how to use technology safely, there are lots of tech training opportunities in Manhattan. UFM, the North Central-Flint Hills Area Agency on Aging, USD 383 Adult Learning Center, Manhattan Area Technical College, and (of course) Manhattan Public Library offer computer classes for all levels of users. Even if you are starting at the beginning, training can make using a computer more fun, and definitely more secure, experience.


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