Internet: Tips to Protect Your Online Information

by Michael Small

Michael Small is the Security Practice Executive for IBM Canada Global Services

Everyday across Canada, would-be hackers are trying to penetrate computers that protect critical information and systems. The good news is that today’s safeguards work very well, but unfortunately any system with a human component has built-in weaknesses. Hackers know about these weaknesses and have become smarter at exploiting human behaviour in order to breach otherwise good security systems. Some simple precautions can be taken to protect yourself and your business.

Often the problem is that new user technologies take off faster than corporate security officials can make them secure. We live in an online world in which business is conducted from anywhere. People who use their laptop computers at the corner coffee shop, or in the airport terminal in a wireless hotspot, need to have a desktop firewall program installed. If your computer uses a wireless device, the device should use one of the wireless access protocols in order to encrypt your network traffic. One easy way to check is to look at the package label to ensure that your Wi-Fi technology supports either the WPA or WPA2 protocols.

To protect your home computer make sure it has up-to-date antivirus software and install a desktop firewall program to protect yourself against nasty threats. These precautions are especially important if you are always connected through a high-speed connection. Intruders are constantly scanning for home systems they can hijack and computer users need to be constantly vigilant.

Sometimes we can accidentally open the door for hackers or for other threats to corporate networks. You should not respond to unsolicited e-mail, open unknown attachments, or respond to instant messages from people you don’t know. Even the “Unsubscribe” option on a spam e-mail probably won’t take you off any junk lists, and it may even redirect you unknowingly to a website that creates a pathway into your computer or downloads a virus on your PC.

But a hacker doesn’t have to be devious to crack most systems. Approximately 40 percent of all computer users use the word “password” as their password. When choosing a password, there are a few ways to slow down programs that are specifically written to crack passwords. Don’t choose obvious passwords like the name of a pet, a friend or your birth month. Go for longer passwords which include at least 8 characters. Mix letters with non-letters such as numbers, symbols and punctuation. And if you absolutely have to use a real word, misspell it.

Never write down your password or share it with others. When someone tries the direct method and simply asks for your password, just say no. There is no good reason to give out your password, social insurance number, or bank account information in response to an e-mail or phone call. Don’t believe the e-mail out of the blue from a foreign country promising a share of a fortune if you provide your bank account information. And don’t believe e-mails or phone calls from people who claim to be from a legitimate bank, asking for your password or account number. Legitimate banks and internet service providers will never ask you to provide this kind of information via telephone or e-mail. E-mails that look legitimate and that ask you to verify your user name and password are probably from illegitimate companies trying to steal your private information. This scam is referred to as “phishing,” and should be reported to your bank, online retailer or internet service provider immediately. Most of these organizations have departments that deal with these types of online scams. If in doubt, call them.

If you’re an online shopper, think carefully before giving out your financial or credit card information. While shopping online, always look for a third-party privacy seal to ensure that your transaction is secure and that your private information is being properly protected.

And finally, back up your important computer files. There is no such thing as 100 percent protection from viruses or other threats so make sure you have a recent back up in case the worst happens and your system is damaged.