News about hackers getting your information is everywhere. When breaches happen on a large scale they can cost hundreds of millions of dollars with millions of people affected. In many cases, as with hacks at retail stores or healthcare providers, you have little to no control over protecting your data — you have to trust someone else in custody of your information is taking precautions. But in other cases, you’re able to take precautions to protect your information.
Hackers still aren’t quite as interested in hacking your cell phones, but it’s likely only a matter of time until your desktop, iPhone, and cloud are all at equal risk. As a result your purchases on Amazon, the photos of your kids, and even your banking information are at risk. About 32% of people prefer to bank online, and 12% of people prefer to use mobile banking instead of visiting a branch — increasing the risk to have your personal financial data at a hacker’s fingertips. You can use common sense to make sure you’re protecting yourself as much as possible, but today there are easy steps to take to make sure you’re as private as you’d like to be.
Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower who’s now living in exile in Russia, recently sat down with The Intercept’s Micah Lee to talk about ways to keep your information as private as you’d like. Much of their conversation centered around “operational security,” a term originating from military jargon that describes the steps you take to protect information.
“[Opsec] is important even if you’re not worried about the NSA. Because when you think about who the victims of surveillance are, on a day-to-day basis, you’re thinking about people who are in abusive spousal relationships, you’re thinking about people who are concerned about stalkers, you’re thinking about children who are concerned about their parents overhearing things. It’s to reclaim a level of privacy,” Snowden said in the Intercept interview.
Snowden offers several tips to protect your documents, your texts and calls, plus other information. Take a look at some of his tips for protecting yourself — and perhaps avoid snoops on the other line. With many tools today, protecting your information won’t require changing your entire life. It will most likely just mean downloading an app or two.
1. Encrypt your texts and calls
The News of the World phone hacking scandal in the early 2000s was perhaps the first big wake-up call for the public that your cell phone activities can be hacked and broadcast to anyone with the right skills and technology. In many cases, that would mean hackers overhear your weekly calls to your mother and a conversation with your spouse about what to have for dinner. But if you’re worried about people listening in to more sensitive conversations — or want to have privacy for privacy’s sake — there are tools you can use to encrypt your phone. If messages are intercepted, they’ll be unreadable, Snowden said.
One app Snowden recommends is Signal, created by Open Whisper Systems. It’s free for iOS and Android phones, and both the creator and Snowden call the app “low friction,” meaning it’s easy to use and won’t completely disrupt the way you text or call now.
2. Encrypt your hard disk
This is a pretty common precaution, but it’s still Snowden’s second tip for protecting your information. If your laptop is stolen but not encrypted, you’re basically giving hackers unbridled access to every email, every bank statement, and every company memo you’ve ever saved to it.
Not sure how to go about encrypting your files, or what it means for your information? Lee provides some additional tips in a separate article.
3. Use a password manager
Despite knowing it’s not a good idea, we’ve all overused passwords or recycled them from one email account to another. We only have so much mental space to remember passwords, right?
While that might be true, Snowden said the most common form of privacy intrusions happens when one company is hacked, and your password for that site also works for your bank, your current email, and your credit card provider.
“A password manager allows you to create unique passwords for every site that are unbreakable, but you don’t have the burden of memorizing them,” Snowden said. If you’re not sure where to start, Lee suggests checking out KeePassX. If you’re willing to pay for the service, PC Mag reviews several other options that vary in price from $10 to $40.
4. Use two-factor authentication
As an added step to secure passwords, using two-factor authentication is growing in popularity. Passwords have become increasingly unpopular, even earning the ire of President Obama’s administration. The government has funded initiatives that would add security features without relying on passwords, some of which include two-factor authentication and other similar projects.
If you enable two-factor authentication on certain accounts like email or other sites, you’ll enter a password but also need to verify a code sent to your cellphone or other device. That way if your password is compromised, the hacker will also need to have your personal cell phone in hand to get into your information. There are some drawbacks, as CNET explains, but it can be used as an added precaution. It’s available on Facebook, Gmail, PayPal, Bank of America, and several other sites.
5. Avoid oversharing
The first four suggestions Snowden makes are technical, and he follows up with some information about using tools like Tor to make you even more secure while online. But another tip is common sense: Don’t share information people simply don’t need to know.
“Your friend doesn’t need to know what pharmacy you go to. Facebook doesn’t need to know your password security questions. You don’t need to have your mother’s maiden name on your Facebook page, if that’s what you use for recovering your password on Gmail,” Snowden said.
No matter what page you go to online, companies are invisibly collecting information about your movements and your data. Being smart about what information you provide is an easy way to make sure you’re not giving too much away.