With the explosion of the internet in the last ten years and the ever increasing use and reliance on it to perform our every day life and work, it has become more important than ever to consider your personal security online.
The overwhelming majority of internet users have no idea at all about the steps required to help protect their personal information online. This can be seen by the massive surge in identity theft in the last five years, which is happening online and offline.
To help combat that epidemic, below are my top recommendations to lower your risk of identity theft and improve your online personal security:
- Don’t Share Your Account Information
Just like your PIN number on a debit card or your credit card number, don’t share your account information for with anyone. If you have in the past, regardless of how much you might trust that person – make a point of changing your password as you don’t know how lax they have been with your personal information.
- Don’t Reuse Your Account Information
People hate having to remember different usernames and passwords for different web sites. However, reusing your account information from one site on another puts all of your online accounts in serious jeopardy if someone tries to attack your identity online.
- Create Different Accounts For Different Purposes
For most people it is hard enough to not reuse your account information across literally dozens of different online accounts. However, if you can’t manage a unique set of credentials for each web site – at a minimum group the web sites by type (email, social network, banking, online shopping, ..) and use a different set of credentials for each site. At least if someone gains access to your Facebook account, they don’t automatically get access to your bank accounts.
- Choose Strong Passwords
Just like people hate having to remember different usernames, people hate having to remember different passwords. This leads people to using a simpler password, in the hope that they’ll be able to remember it. That mental stumbling block is the perfect attack point for an average user, as their password will probably be a dictionary word or another simple combination of characters such as ‘12345’. When creating a password, regardless of whether it is for an email account, social networking or an internet banking account – it should contain lower case, upper case, numbers, special characters and be at least 8 characters long. I know that sounds like a lot of hoop jumping but there are simple ways to remember a complex password, such as using a memorable phrase and replacing a few characters within it.
- Reduce The Number Of Online Accounts
With the creation of the authentication protocol OpenID, web site developers now have the ability to allow clients to create a new account without having to worry about managing yet another password. Instead users can signin using an existing account such as a Google, Microsoft Live, Yahoo!, AOL and many more. By signing up using an OpenID enabled account, you have one less password to remember and when you change your password – it is changed on all sites that are linked to it. It might seem as though using OpenID contravenes points 2, 3 and 4 above however it doesn’t because you can create one more OpenID accounts and use a strong password on each instead of something simple like your pets name.
- Ensure You’re Using HTTPS
If you’re logging into a site or disclosing your personal information online, make sure you’re currently viewing that web site in HTTPS. The ‘s’ in HTTPS stands for secure and it uses high strength encryption to keep your personal information private when transferred from your web browser to the web site in question. If you aren’t viewing it site in HTTPS, your personal information is transferred across the internet in clear text that anyone could potentially read.
- Practice Minimal Disclosure
The internet is a public medium, once you put your personal information out into the public realm – it could very well remain their for the foreseeable future. That means that anyone that might be inclined to go looking for information about you can find it with ease. With that in mind, you should make a point of only ever publishing as much information about yourself on a web site as you’d be happy to have displayed on a billboard beside a busy motorway.
- Consider Using A Password Manager
If you do have dozens of different accounts and you cannot keep up with it all, consider using a password manager. You can generate a strong, high complexity random password for every site you create an account on and store it within your secure password manager. If and when you need to signin to that site again, simply look it up within the password manager. If you don’t want to use a standard desktop password manager like KeePass, there are also some fantastic secure password managers which provide web browser integration such as LastPass.
- Your Email Address Isn’t Your Username
If a web site doesn’t support OpenID but it does allow you to create a username that isn’t your email address – you should take them up on that offer. While convenient, your email address isn’t your username and can lead to issues in the future if you lose that email account. A friend of mine signed up to Amazon using their Hotmail account and it was previously used by another person but expired. Once signed in, my friend could see all of the previous owners personal information they’d provided Amazon, including name, address, purchase history and more.
- Shared Computer Access
If you’re in a position where you use a computer and it is shared between a number of different people, either at home, work or elsewhere – always remember to clean up after yourself. Most web browsers have the ability to remember usernames and passwords for convenience. However if you’re using a shared computer, you could be leaving your account information laying around for someone else to pray on. An easy solution for this is to simply clear all the temporary internet files when you’re done or before logging out of the machine. If that seems like it is too much hassle, the latest versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera all provide a privacy mode or private mode which won’t keep any history of your activity while it is enabled.
While there might seem like a lot of things above to consider, those ten items certainly aren’t the only things you can do to improve your identity management process. In a future post, I’ll talk about how you might go about implementing some of my recommendations above so you can take the first step, which is often the hardest.