Emily Maffett

Recent coverage of the controversial NSA PRISM data gathering program has sparked a lively national dialogue about privacy issues and the lengths the government can—and should—go to in order to protect our nation from terrorist threats. In an age where social media encourages us to share personal information with the masses, the difference between information that should remain private and information that’s fair game isn’t exactly black and white. In a recent USA TODAY poll, Americans were asked whether they approve or disapprove of PRISM as part of the war against terror. Not surprisingly, responses were split down the middle.

Regardless of the side of the aisle you’re on when it comes to this issue, this recent news brings the idea of data privacy and security to the forefront. When it comes to protecting the personal data we store on our computers, phones, and other electronics, much of the responsibility is ours alone. There are a lot of people out there who want to do more than monitor your personal information. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself.

The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team offers an extensive series of tip sheets on a broad range of common security issues, from safeguarding data to staying safe on social media sites. Using these tips as a resource, I’ve highlighted the following six simple steps you can take to help make sure that your personal information doesn’t go public:

  1. Lock your computer when you are away from it. This prevents another person from being able to simply sit down at your computer and access your personal information. Next time you leave your desk to pick up coffee or to grab something off the printer, lock your computer. You can also adjust your computer settings to lock your computer after a designated period of inactivity.
  2. Limit the amount of personal information you post on social media sites. Don’t post information that you wouldn’t want strangers to see, such as your address or information about your schedule or routine—this can make you vulnerable and give people running phishing scams a leg up on making you think their virus-laden email is legit. If your connections post information about you, make sure the combined information is not more than you would be comfortable sharing.
  3. Disconnect your computer from the Internet when you aren’t using it. This can mean disabling your wireless connection or simply turning off your computer or modem. Many of us don’t know that the convenience of staying “plugged in” all the time comes with risks, but it can increase the likelihood that attackers or viruses scanning the network for available computers will target yours.
  4. Use (and maintain) anti-virus software and a firewall. This one may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to ignore the pop-up reminders and let your protection lapse. Putting a reminder on your calendar that will let you know when your subscriptions expire is one way to make sure you keep your coverage current.
  5. Keep your software up to date. Software patches can fix known problems or vulnerabilities that can make you more susceptible to a cyber attack. If your operating system offers automatic updates, turn them on. This can eliminate the hassle of having to manually check for and install updates.
  6. Use passwords to encrypt sensitive files. Most of us have to input a password to log into our computers, but passwords can also be used to add a layer of security to sensitive documents you have on your computer, including Microsoft Office and Adobe pdf files. Always follow suggested guidelines for choosing strong passwords, and be sure to memorize them—if you forget or lose them, you may lose your data.

Although you can’t be prepared for everything, these six steps are easy to implement and are good first steps for safeguarding yourself against cyber attacks and threats. When it comes to protecting your personal information, you can never be too careful.

Keywords: Cybersecurity