Leaving Work Behind

An Online Freelancer’s Introduction to Digital Security

Written by Anne Dorko on January 24, 2017. 4 Comments

An open bolt lock.As an online freelancer leaving work behind, your laptop is your life – some spend a minimum of six hours per day absorbing the blue light. However, if your laptop is compromised, you could stand to lose everything.

Let’s be clear: nobody is safe from hacking attempts, and there’s no bulletproof strategy if you become a target. Until that happens, basic precaution should keep the majority of the digital riffraff at bay. Predators like easy prey – so make yourself less accessible by applying some simple steps to avoid being hacked or having your identity stolen.

Personally, I find this process to be rewarding and fun. So without further ado, here’s my simple introduction to securing your online existence!

Step 1: Update and Encrypt Your Computer

If you’re like me, you procrastinate on running updates for your computer. They can take a long time to download and install, not to mention disrupting your workflow. It’s easier to hold off until we absolutely have to because our programs stop working.

Cut that habit out, because software updates are your first line of defense when it comes to digital security! Your second line of defense is encryption. Let’s take a further look at each:

  1. Software updates fix security holes in your computer software. This gives you the best chance at avoiding zero-day exploitation.
  2. Simply put, encryption scrambles the data on your computer so only you can access it with your password. If a hacker does get past your computer software, encryption can make it impossible to read your data.

Together, these protect your computer’s data from being stolen.

How to Update and Encrypt Your Computer

Running updates is a frequent and ongoing task. However, the minor annoyance is worth it for any security fixes and enhancements. Vendors have made it easy to apply software updates nowadays, whether you’re on a Windows machine, or an Apple Mac.

The FileVault feature.

Apple provides the popular FileVault service for encrypting your data.

Encrypting your computer, on the other hand, is a one-time action. Many modern laptops now ship with encryption enabled by default, but you should absolutely check for and enable it before moving on.

Step 2: Browse the Web With HTTPS and a VPN

I can’t count the number of times I have relied on public Wi-Fi at coffee shops and airports to get work done over the last five years. During that time, I unwittingly risked everything by managing my online banking, credit cards, taxes, and more over unprotected internet connections.

There are two main layers of protection you can use when using public Wi-Fi:

  1. HTTP Secure (HTTPS). This is a protocol for secure communication over the internet. You’ll see https:// instead of http:// at the beginning of the URL in your browser when you are using it, and requires no extra software on your part. It’s often down to the website owner to enable this kind of connection.
  2. Virtual Private Network (VPN). This enables users to send and receive data over a public network as if over a private network. You’ll often need third-party software and services for this to work.

While HTTPS is largely out of your hands, VPN usage it totally on you. Here are two situations where you might want to use it:

  1. For casual internet browsing over public Wi-Fi connections, even if they have a password.
  2. For anonymity online. VPNs are often used by journalists and writers when researching controversial topics, for example. If this is your situation, be sure your VPN does not keep access logs.

A VPN is never a magic solution for these scenarios, but offers another layer of protection.

When you browse the web without HTTPS and a VPN, you risk man-in-the-middle attacks and much worse. Making sure your web browsing is secure is paramount to keeping your data safe.

How to Use HTTPS and a VPN to Browse Securely

Unfortunately, HTTPS only works when a website owner installs it on their website. You can’t control which websites enable it, but you can install browser plugins that use it wherever possible. One popular plugin is HTTPS Everywhere, which works on all major browsers.

For the rest of your internet usage, you’ll want a VPN. You can get started by trying solutions such as Private Internet Access or Pure VPN. Each provider will have its own instructions for using their service – but simply make sure you keep whichever option you choose enabled as much as possible!

Step 3: Strengthen and Randomize Your Passwords

When I was 13, I used the same password everywhere: a combination of my boyfriend’s name and my pet tortoise. Once I broke up with said boyfriend and my pet tortoise died, I realized that email accounts sometimes last longer than relationships. Of course, it’s just not secure to rely on the same password everywhere.

One day, I read a status from a tech-savvy friend explaining how all someone needs is access to your email account, and they can then access everything else – kind of like a skeleton key. It made me realize I needed to take my security much more seriously.

If you use the same password everywhere, a hacker only needs to find one weak website to hack. By finding the weakest link, they have access to the rest. Using strong (and different) passwords on each site mitigates the risk if one becomes compromised.

This is so important because there are major security breaches all the time – don’t risk your real-world safety online out of laziness.

How to Strengthen Your Passwords

To get started, you can go through each account manually and keep track of your new, strong passwords in a physical folder. My grandmother (who builds computers) does this because she prefers the security of the paper approach, though she admits it can be tedious to maintain over time. When choosing passwords manually, follow secure guidelines such as:

It can often be easier to choose a passphrase rather than a password or random string of characters. You can also automatically generate passwords to make life easier – and it’s a good idea to test how secure a password is before sticking to it.

I prefer to use a service that safely generates, tracks, and fills in passwords for me so I don’t need to worry about remembering anything. There are several services, such as 1Password and LastPass, that help you manage this.

The 1Password login screen.

1Password securely locks your passwords and login details within an encrypted database.

Once you choose your method, take a few days to carry out some essential tasks, such as:

  1. Updating the passwords to your accounts as you login to each one.
  2. Clearing any saved passwords in your browser and on your computer.
  3. Storing your new passwords securely – whether that is in a physical folder or in a password manager.

Don’t forget to choose a secure password for your laptop, too! Once you’re set, you’ll be incredibly secure, and you’ll have less to remember. For example, I only have to remember two passwords: one for my laptop, and my 1Password master key!

Conclusion

Being an online freelancer means most of your life revolves around your laptop and the internet. To help avoid viruses and data or identity theft, it’s important to take some steps into the world of digital security.

Getting started is pretty simple, you just need to:

  1. Encrypt your computer and always keep it updated.
  2. Always browse securely using HTTPS and a VPN.
  3. Strengthen and randomize your passwords to mitigate potential breaches.

Do you have any questions about how to get started with these steps? Let me know in the comments section below!

Image credit: terimakasih0.

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4 Responses to “An Online Freelancer’s Introduction to Digital Security”

  1. herman dailybits
    February 5, 2017 at 6:15 pm

    Enable 2 factor authentication on all services and accounts..

  2. Adam Duncan
    April 4, 2017 at 10:41 am

    Yes, 2-factor authentication is the best option!

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