The Internet and mobile technology have introduced many conveniences to our lives. Yet, these valuable resources have also exposed us to greater risks to our privacy and security. Recent Canadian data estimate just over 29,000 incidents of identity fraud a year, at a cost of $12 million.1
There is no 100% effective way to protect yourself from cybercrimes, outside of completely disconnecting yourself from the online world. However, there are some safety measures you can take to reduce the chances of your privacy or digital security being compromised.
Review your social media profiles
If you have a social media account (e.g., Facebook, Instagram), even one you rarely use, cybersecurity company McAfee recommends revisiting your account periodically to recheck your privacy settings.2 Even if you have previously configured your settings, updates and modifications on the social media platform’s side have been known to compromise these settings.
If you’re active on social media, a general safety tip is to avoid “friending” people online that you don’t know in real life, and avoid responding to contact requests from people you don’t know. Also, if you have any contact lists, review them and consider removing contacts you haven’t used in a while.
Check your email
Do you use a free email service? Note that all email services are not alike, especially when it comes to important matters such as security and privacy. Whether you consider yourself tech-savvy or not, it’s a good idea to learn a little bit about your email service’s security and encryption settings, and also its privacy policies, which can vary from provider to provider.3
Furthermore, many cybersecurity specialists recommend having multiple email addresses.4 This could take the form of multiple email accounts or, if you’re well-versed in email, multiple alias email identities off the same account.
Consider having at least four addresses for the following purposes:
- Online banking and government records
- Payments and purchasing (e.g., utility bills, telecommunications services, online shopping)
- Personal and social, your email address for friends, family and social media accounts
- A miscellaneous account for any other reason, that can be shut down quickly without significant impact
Passphrases versus passwords
They might be viewed as a nuisance, but are critical for online security: your personal passwords, the requirements of which are becoming increasingly complex. It can be difficult to come up with passwords that meet your security needs and actually remember.
You may wish to consider using “passphrases” instead of passwords. Whereas a password is generally one word, with numbers and special characters added for extra security, a passphrase is a generally longer sequence of words, with or without spaces, that can either be completely random or an actual phrase. Debate continues on how much more secure passphrases are, but some studies have shown that A) passphrases often beat passwords when tested for security strength;5 and B) passphrases are easier to remember.6
An example of a passphrase might be a song lyric, memorable to you but not obvious to a hacker. If your favourite song is Let It Be by the Beatles, a passphrase one could draw from that is “WhisperWordsOfWisdom1970#Paul” (note that this is an example, not for actual use).
Another general tip is avoiding having one password/passphrase for all your online accounts. This leads to another issue: the sheer number of passwords we have to remember. The average computer user has 90 different online accounts;4 while you might not have that many, remembering multiple passwords, can still be a problem, and writing them down on paper and leaving them in the open can defeat the purpose. If you are on the more tech-savvy side, consider using a secure password/passphrase management program.
Technology is continuously evolving, and so are the security issues surrounding it. Even if you don’t consider yourself tech-savvy, it’s a good idea to sometimes check-in online and read up on the latest security news. If you consider yourself tech-savvy, other options you may want to explore can include enhanced antivirus software, virtual private network (“VPN”) services and domain name system (“DNS”) filtering. However, no matter how proficient you are, just being aware of online risks can leave you better prepared for an increasingly complex technological landscape.
1. Carola Vyhnak, “The painful price of identity theft,” The Star, September 4, 2018.
2. “11 Steps to Improve your Personal Digital Security,” McAfee Blogs, December 6, 2013.
3. “Security Tip (ST05-009): Benefits and Risks of Free Email Services,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security: Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
4. “Top 5 ways to protect your Digital Identity,” DigitalPrivacyWise, July 16, 2018.
5. Anthony T, “Why Passphrases Are More User-Friendly Than Passwords,” Smashing Magazine, December 16, 2015.
6. Ben Wolford, “Let’s settle the password vs. passphrase debate once and for all,” ProtonMail, March 5, 2019.