Most people understand the need for cyber security because of the large amount of identity theft and cyber crime in the news, but developing a strong defensive strategy for your computing devices can seem like a daunting task. In this article we are going to look at five easy steps you can take to help make your sensitive data a hard target for cyber thieves. We will look at software updates, defensive software, developing and maintaining strong, unique passwords, data encryption, home network security and how to use them in your security strategy.

1. Keep Software Up-to-Date

Most software vendors periodically release updates to their software as a way to address security vulnerabilities that have been exposed in their product, sometimes by hackers themselves. One of the easiest ways you can stay ahead of hackers is to take advantage of the software updates for the programs on your machine. This means updates for the operating system you run, such as Microsoft Windows 7, Mac OS X, or whatever system your mobile device is running. This would be true for any applications you run as well such as Microsoft Office products, Mozilla Firefox, or Adobe Reader. All of these programs are separate pieces of software and all require separate updates.

You might be thinking, “How do I keep up with all of those updates, what if I forget one?” Fortunately, most programs have an auto-update feature that can easily be enabled so you don’t fall behind on your updates. Just check the settings or preferences of your programs for the updates section.

One of the other reasons we often allow software to fall behind on updates is because the pop-up window that allows the updates to install often pops up at the most inconvenient times, so we cancel the updates, and forget to go back and install them. One way to avoid this is to have a designated time once every week or two to make sure your programs are up-to-date, and restart your computer.

Having updated software won’t shut hackers down completely, but it will make your system less of a target for them.

2. Use Defensive Software

Antivirus software runs period checks of your system for harmful code and quarantines the questionable software so it can’t harm your system or your files. Running an antivirus program is essential to keeping your computer secure. Many antivirus programs include Malware detection software that looks for programs designed to hide themselves in your system and secretly open it up to hackers. Just like other software, antivirus software needs to receive updates and can be set to update automatically. Most antivirus software is easy to use and often runs in the background of your system so you don’t have to worry about it, and some companies even provide free antivirus programs.

Firewall software manages the types of connections being made to your computer and blocks non-standard connections, preventing hackers from exploiting open ports. Most operating systems have built-in firewall software, which also runs in the background and should be enabled. If your system doesn’t have a firewall, you can download firewall software. Some of them are even free or bundled with antivirus programs.

Antivirus and firewall software also won’t stop hackers completely, but they are easy and important tools to add to your defense arsenal.

3. Use Strong, Unique Passwords

Many people use the same one or two passwords for all their accounts: email, credit card websites, bank websites, etc. This is a major security vulnerability because if a hacker gets one of your passwords, they have access to all of your sensitive data and accounts and can cause serious harm.

The solution is to use strong, complex passwords that are hard to crack, and to use a unique password for every login you have. The obvious objection is that there is no way you can remember many complex passwords and what they belong to, and if you write them down or save them in an unsecured document it actually makes them more vulnerable.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution that takes both the burden of inventing complex passwords and the need to remember them off of your shoulders. Many companies produce low-cost password management software that generates strong, complex passwords for you and saves them to an encrypted file. Some of these programs also have a plug-in that works with your internet browser that recognizes your saved websites and automatically fills in your login information.

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4. Use Encryption When Possible

We’ve already talked about storing your passwords in an encrypted file, but there are other important uses for data encryption. Storing your sensitive data in an encrypted container is a great way to protect that data from prying eyes. If your machine becomes compromised through the Internet somehow, or even if your laptop is stolen, but your sensitive data such as financial or personal information is stored in an encrypted container, it will be hard for the cyber thief to get your information.

More importantly, when you’re transmitting sensitive data over the Internet, such as logging into a financial site or entering your credit card information into a website, you should always verify that you’re transmitting that data over an encrypted link. You may not know much about encryption, but that’s okay if use the following tools.

File encryption software is easy to use and locks your data away in an encrypted container. All you have to do is remember a password or some other secret key to lock and unlock the software. When using the Internet, look for “https” in the URL bar or the image of a padlock. Both of these are indications that the website has opened an encrypted link to your computer.

Encryption is a very hard obstacle for cyber thieves to overcome, and using it will help you strongly protect your data.

5. Implement Network Security

Many people leave their home wireless networks unsecured. The most common result of this is someone connecting to your network and slowing your internet browsing down which can be a nuisance, but someone with bad intent can easily connect to your network and access your data if your network is unsecured.

Fortunately, it’s easy to configure most wireless routers to use network encryption such as WPA2 or 128bit-WEP. This is another area that you can implement a strong, unique password as the key to your encrypted network. It’s also a good idea to configure your wireless router not to broadcast the name of your wireless network (called an SSID). This makes it harder for uninvited guests to find. Some wireless routers such as this Cisco-Linksys WRT160N have firewalls that you can enable to give an added layer of security to your network.

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Protecting your home network with access control by securing your wireless network is an essential part of a strong cyber defense.

Take some time and do a self-security audit. Go through the programs on your computer one by one and verify they are currently updated. Verify you are running an antivirus program and that the signatures are updated. Develop a password strategy that gives you strong, unique passwords for all your logins and stores them in a secure, accessible manner. Encrypt your sensitive data and make a habit of verifying you are using an encrypted channel to transmit sensitive data. Secure your home network with wireless encryption and a firewall.

No defensive strategy is completely foolproof, but if you make it your goal to become a hard target for cyber thieves, you stand a good chance of fending them off enough that they will look for easier prey.