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How safe are you online?

Shark Girl greeting "Phish Bowl" participants at a October 2015 UB Information Security Office National Cyber Security Awareness event.

By Dan Heuskin

Published October 14, 2016

Even after installing the best security software on your computer, sometimes your own actions can open your system to potential threats—from viruses and data loss to the access of personal information by malicious individuals. Here are six rules of thumb you should apply to stay safe online.

1) Create strong passwords—or passphrases—and change them periodically

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Daniel Heuskin (UB Student, Class of 2017) is originally from Long Island, NY. He is studying English at UB with aspirations to become a teacher or writer. In his free time, he enjoys playing bass guitar, doing nature photography, writing songs and reading.

The importance of strong passwords can’t be stressed enough. People often use the same password for several different accounts and don’t change it out of convenience. But often, these kinds of passwords are also easy to crack.

"The thinking on passwords has changed," said Dr. Catherine Ullman, Information Security Analyst at UB’s Information Security Office. "Length is key now. You want your password to be more like a passphrase."

A passphrase uses a combination of words, numbers, special characters and both upper- and lower-case letters. Most importantly, a passphrase is typically longer than a standard password for additional security.

Dr. Ullman also recommends changing your password periodically.

"Passwords are like toothbrushes," she said. "You shouldn’t share them with anyone else, and be sure to change them every six months."

To change your password, just follow these steps.

2) Back up your data

Whenever you’re working actively on a project, it’s best to back-up your data to an external hard drive, or a cloud storage account every 20 minutes or so.

Backing up your work is easy with UBbox, UB’s cloud-based storage and sharing solution. Free for all students, faculty and staff. UBbox provides unlimited secure file storage with a simple platform for uploading, viewing and organizing files and folders on any device, including your smartphone or tablet.

Another quick and easy method for backing up your work is to email a copy to yourself. It’s always a good idea to create multiple backups of a document and store them in different locations; then, if your computer gets infected or your system crashes, you won’t have to worry about your data being destroyed.

3) Be careful when using public Wi-Fi

Using free public Wi-Fi to browse the Web at a coffee shop may seem like a harmless activity. However, the information exchanged between your computer and the Web usually isn’t encrypted, which means it is accessible to other people using the network.

Since this lack of encryption leaves your data vulnerable, be sure not to make bank transactions, purchases or viewings of private health information over unencrypted public networks.

Shark Girl with Victor E. Bull

4) Keep your operating system up-to-date

It doesn’t matter if you use Windows or Mac, IOS or Android; you should always keep your operating system up-to-date using either automatic or manual updates. To ensure smooth operations and fix whatever security vulnerabilities may exist in older software, it’s best to update all software and applications on your computer on a regular basis.

5) Never open unexpected email attachments

Email attachments are one of the most common means by which malicious individuals spread infections between computers. Hackers often disguise their identities in emails to trick people into believing that they are official authorities. Avoid opening email attachments unless you are absolutely certain about the identity of the sender and are expecting the attachment in question.

When in doubt, contact the sender and ask them about the file before you open it. If the sender’s account has been compromised, he or she may have no idea.  

6) Be cautious about what you post online

Finally, think about what you post online. Information you post on the Internet can remain there forever, and it’s not difficult to trace content back to a particular person.

"Don’t put anything out there that you wouldn’t want your grandmother, your boss or your parents to see," added Dr. Ullman. "If you’d be uncomfortable with these people seeing your post, chances are the material shouldn’t be out there in the first place."

Next time you're ready to broadcast personal or sensitive information on social media, blogs or comment sections, think twice - is it really necessary to put this information out there? Who might see it and what might the consequences be? It’s always safer to keep sensitive and personal information to yourself.

By following these simple rules and using appropriate security software, you’ll be well on your way to safer and more secure computing.