Life online can be a bit of a minefield, especially when it comes to avoiding malicious hacker attacks.
You've all heard the basic advice -- use a fully updated anti-malware product, apply all patches for operating system and desktop software, avoid surfing to darker parts of the Web, etc. etc.
Those are all important but there are a few additional things you can do to secure your online presence and keep hackers at bay. Here are 10 little things that can provide big value:
1. Use a Password Manager
Password managers have emerged as an important utility to manage the mess of creating strong, unique passwords for multiple online accounts. This helps you get around password-reuse (a basic weakness in the identity theft ecosystem) and because they integrate directly with Web browsers, password managers will automatically save and fill website login forms and securely organize your life online.
Google's two-step verification for GMail accounts is an invaluable tool to make sure no one is logging into your e-mail account without your knowledge. It basically works like the two-factor authentication you see at banking sites and use text-messages sent to your phone to verify that you are indeed trying to log into your GMail. It takes a about 10-minutes to set up and can be found at the top of your Google Accounts Settings page. Turn it on and set it up now.
While you're there, you might want to check the forwarding and delegation settings in your account to make sure your email is being directed properly. It's also important to periodically check for unusual access or activity in your account. You can see the last account activity recorded at the bottom of GMail page, including the most recent IP addresses accessing the account.
3. Switch to Google Chrome and install KB SSL Enforcer
In my judgment, the most secure web browser available today is Google Chrome. With sandboxing, safe browsing and the silent patching (auto-updates), Google Chrome's security features make it the best option when compared to the other main browsers. I'd also like to emphasize Google's security team's speed at fixing known issues, a scenario that puts it way ahead of rivals.
Once you've switched to Chrome, your next move is to install the KB SSL Enforcer extension, which forces encrypted browsing wherever possible. The extension automatically detects if a site supports SSL (TLS) and redirects the browser session to that encrypted session. Very, very valuable.
4. Use a VPN everywhere
If you're in the habit of checking e-mails or Facebook status updates in coffee shops or on public WiFi networks, it's important that you user a virtual private network (VPN) to encrypt your activity and keep private data out of the hands of malicious hackers.
The video above explains all you need to know about the value of VPNs and how to set it up to authenticate and encrypt your web sessions. If you use public computers, consider using a portable VPN application that can run off a USB drive.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has made this a resolution for 2012 and I'd like to echo this call for computer users to adopt full disk encryption to protect your private data. Full disk encryption uses mathematical techniques to scramble data so it is unintelligible without the right key. This works independently of the policies configured in the operating system software. A different operating system or computer cannot just decide to allow access, because no computer or software can make any sense of the data without access to the right key. Without encryption, forensic software can easily be used to bypass an account password and read all the files on your computer.
If you ever went through the sudden death of a computer or the loss of a laptop while travelling, then you know the pain of losing all your data. Get into the habit of automatically saving the contents of your machine to an external hard drive or to a secure online service.
Services like Mozy, Carbonite or iDrive can be used to back up everyone -- from files to music to photos -- or you can simply invest in an external hard drive and routinely back up all the stuff you can't afford to lose. For Windows users, here's an awesome cheat sheet from Microsoft.
Oracle Sun's Java has bypassed Adobe software as the most targeted by hackers using exploit kits. There's a very simple workaround for this: Immediately uninstall Java from your machine. Chances are you don't need it and you probably won't miss it unless you're using a very specific application. Removing Java will significantly reduce the attack surface and save you from all these annoying checked-by-default bundles that Sun tries to sneak onto your computer.
8. Upgrade to Adobe Reader X
Adobe's PDF Reader is still a high-value target for skilled, organized hacking groups so it's important to make sure you are running the latest and greatest version of the software. Adobe Reader and Acrobat X contains Protected Mode, a sandbox technology that serves as a major deterrent to malicious exploits.
According to Adobe security chief Brad Arkin says the company has not yet been a single piece of malware identified that is effective against a version X install. This is significant. Update immediately. If you still distrust Adobe's software, you may consider switching to an alternative product.
Facebook and Twitter have become online utilities and, as expected, the popular social networks are a happy hunting ground for cyber-criminals. I strongly recommend against using Facebook because the company has no respect or regard for user privacy but, if you can't afford to opt out of the social narrative, it's important to always use common sense on social networks.
Do not post anything sensitive or overly revealing because your privacy is never guaranteed. Pay special attention to the rudimentary security features and try to avoid clicking on strange video or links to news items that can lead to social engineering attacks. Again, common sense please.
10. Don't forget the basics
None of the tips above would be meaningful if you forget the basics. For starters, enable Windows Automatic Updates to ensure operating system patches are applied in a timely manner. Use a reputable anti-malware product and make sure it's always fully updated. Don't forget about security patches for third-party software products (Secunia CSI can help with this). When installing software, go slowly and look carefully at pre-checked boxes that may add unwanted crap to your machine. One last thing: Go through your control panel and uninstall software that you don't or won't use.