New year, new tech. That’s what hits the floor at the CES show each January in Las Vegas. Whether it’s striking, strange, or just pretty cool, plenty of this year’s tech is connected — and that means it needs to get protected.
Already we’ve seen a personal health scanner that works like a tricorder from Star Trek, smart belts that help people with limited vision get around safely, and smart locks that open your door with the palm of your hand.
Coursing through all these connected devices are data and info — data and info about you. Your family. Your home. Your comings and goings. The kind of data and info that all kinds of people want to get their hands on.
That’s where protection comes in.
Any device connected to the internet must be protected. Even if it’s something as innocuous as a smart wall outlet. The reason is, your home network is only as strong as its weakest security link. And many smart devices don’t come with the best security out of the box. Hackers know this. By compromising a device like a smart wall outlet, a hacker can gain access to the rest of the network and the devices and data on it.
But how do you protect a smart wall outlet, along with that smart coffeemaker, door lock, and refrigerator? We’ll run it down for you, plus advice for keeping the latest in medical, fitness, and mobile devices safe as well.
How to protect your new tech
Broadly speaking, you can protect most of your tech with a handful of steps. Whether it’s a new Wi-Fi router, smartwatch, or even a connected fridge, they can all benefit from the following basics.
Use strong, unique passwords
When it’s time to set up a new account or device, go with a strong, unique password. Strong means a mix of at least 12 characters, if not more. That includes a mix of numbers, symbols, and both letter cases, upper and lower. Unique means you don’t repeat it across accounts. That way, if one password gets compromised, the rest will remain secure.
Why strong and unique? Given today’s computing power, a hacker’s password generator can create millions of passwords in seconds. Weak passwords have no chance against them. It’s a simple matter of statistics.
Consider a password that uses eight numbers, uppercase and lowercase letters, and symbols. Sounds pretty strong, right? Unfortunately, a brute-force attack might crack that password in as fast as one second. One second …
(Using numbers, uppercase
and lowercase letters, and symbols)
|Time to Crack
|16 Million Years
However, increase that password length to twelve numbers, uppercase and lowercase letters, and symbols — it’d that eight months to crack that password. Bump it up to 16, and it would take 16 million years. The longer it is, the more complex it is. And thus tougher to crack. It’s the difference between one second and 16 million years. And if a hacker’s brute-force attack on one password takes too long, it’ll simply move onto the next one.
A password manager can help create strong, unique passwords for you. Also found in comprehensive online protection software, a password manager can create and securely store strong and unique passwords for your mom and dad, giving them one less thing they need to remember and worry about.
Use multi-factor authentication
Online banks, shops, and other services commonly offer multi-factor authentication to help protect your accounts — with the typical combination of your username, password, and a security code sent to another device you own (often a mobile phone).
If your device or account supports multi-factor authentication, consider using it there too. It throws a big barrier in the way of hackers who try and force their way into your device with a password/username combination.
Keep everything updated
Update your apps and devices regularly. In addition to fixing the odd bug or adding the occasional new feature, app and device updates often address security gaps. Out-of-date apps and devices might have flaws that hackers can exploit, so regular updating is a must from a security standpoint. If you can set your apps and devices to receive automatic updates, even better.
Keep in mind that this very much applies to smart home devices as well.
Secure your internet router
Another device that needs good password protection is your internet router. Make sure you use a strong and unique password there as well to help prevent hackers from breaking into your home network.
Also consider changing the name of your home network so that it doesn’t personally identify you. Fun alternatives to using your name or address include everything from movie lines like “May the Wi-Fi be with you” to old sitcom references like “Central Perk.” Also check that your router is using an encryption method, like WPA2 or the newer WPA3, which will keep your signal secure.
Protect (your) everything
Comprehensive online protection software can secure your phones, tablets, and computers. Moreover, it can protect your privacy, identity, and spot scam texts, messages, and links — just to name a few of the many things it can do.
Moreover, these devices often connect to other devices on your home network. In a way, they act as a remote control for smart home devices like thermostats, alarms, and door locks. Protecting phones, tablets, and computers thus protect those other devices by extension.
How to protect your smart home devices
The smarts behind a smart home come from you. At least when it comes to keeping it more private and secure. The thing with smart home devices is this, they’re connected. And anything that gets connected gets protected. That can look a little different for these devices than it does for your computers and phones, yet there are steps you can take.
Reset the factory password
Many smart home and internet of things (IOT) devices come with preset usernames and passwords from the factory. So much so, that you can easily find lists of stock usernames and passwords for these devices posted online where hackers can get a hold of them.
In the past, we’ve seen all kinds of attacks occur when these credentials don’t get changed. Among them are stories of hacked baby monitors where attackers take control of the camera and speakers. So just as you do for your other devices and accounts, create a fresh username and pair it with a strong, unique password as outlined above.
Upgrade to a newer internet router
Likewise, older routers might have outdated security measures, which might make them more prone to attacks. If you’re renting yours from your internet provider, contact them for an upgrade. If you’re using your own, visit a reputable news or review site such as Consumer Reports for a list of the best routers that combine speed, capacity, and security.
Set up a guest network specifically for your IoT devices
Just as you can offer your guests secure access that’s separate from your own devices, creating an additional network on your router allows you to keep your computers and smartphones separate from IoT devices. This way, if an IoT device is compromised, a hacker will still have difficulty accessing your other devices on your primary network, the one where you connect your computers and smartphones.
One more note — research the manufacturer
It can get a little tricky tracking down that kind of info, yet you have a couple of great places to start. One is Consumer Reports and their thorough reviews of devices and tech. Another resource is Mozilla Foundation’s “Privacy Not Included” site, which reviews connected products like smart home and IoT devices for safety and security.
How to protect your telemedicine visits
For a quick check-in, a prescription consultation, or just a conversation with a healthcare pro, telemedicine has firmly established itself as a viable option for many types of care. Of course, the info discussed and shared in such a visit can be sensitive.
Use a VPN
A VPN, or virtual private network, offers a strong layer of additional protection when you’re transmitting health data or having a private conversation about your health with a professional. A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel to keep you and your activity anonymous. In effect, your data is scrambled and hidden to anyone outside your VPN tunnel, thus making your private info difficult to collect. Check with the care provider to see if their telemedicine solution uses a VPN. If not, you can always get a VPN as part of your online protection software.
Check in with your provider
If you’re considering a virtual doctor visit, now’s a great chance to check in with your care provider before your appointment. This way, you can get comfortable with what your visit will look like, find out what special apps (if any) are used, and how your care provider will protect your privacy. Also, you can decide which device you’ll use and where you’ll use it so that you feel at ease during your virtual visit.
A reputable care provider will likely put all this pre-appointment info together for you on their website or “frequently asked questions” (FAQ) page, which will include helpful links and numbers to call if you need help or have questions. For an example of what that might look like, check out the telemedicine page that Virginia Mason/Franciscan Health designed for its patients.
Pick a private place
We’ve talked plenty about digital security, yet there’s the old-fashioned issue of physical eavesdropping to think about too. When it’s time for your actual appointment, pick a place in your home where you can ensure yourself some privacy. (Of course, don’t go online for your virtual appointment in a public place.) Look for a space where you can’t be overheard by neighbors and passers-by — preferably someplace like your bedroom where you can be comfortable as well.
How to protect your fitness and wearable devices
By design, many wearables are big on data collection. Coursing through them are all kinds of data, about your vital signs, sleep patterns, not to mention your whereabouts — like when and where you like to run on your hill training days. Keeping these devices secure means keeping some of your most personal info secure as well.
As always, research the manufacturer
Very similar to what we mentioned about smart home and IoT devices, check the manufacturer’s track record. Read reviews. Hit up trusted sources. In all, find out how private and secure your device is. The same resources listed above can help you make an informed purchase.
Adjust the privacy settings
This will vary from device to device as well, yet one more way you can lock down your privacy is in the device settings. Look for options around location tracking, social media sharing, and what types of data are shared online in addition to the device. Overall, consider what kind of fitness data it gathers and where it goes. If you’re not comfortable with that data ending up in the hands of a stranger, make it private.
When upgrading to a new device, wipe your old one
Along the same lines, that old wearable of yours might be chock full of data. Before passing it along, selling it, or recycling it, wipe it. Remove all the old data by restoring it to factory settings (your manufacturer can show you how).
Also, delete any old online account associated with it if you have no more use for it. See to it that any data with that account gets deleted as well, which leaves you with one less account that could wind up the target of a data breach. A service like our own McAfee Online Account Cleanup can help, which you can find in our McAfee+ plans.
How to protect your mobile devices
Certainly, if there’s one device that works like the remote control for our lives, it’s our smartphone. Smartphones and mobile devices like them need protection too — in their own right, and because they connect to so much more.
Avoid third-party app stores
Google Play and Apple’s App Store have measures in place to review and vet apps to help ensure that they are safe and secure. Third-party sites might very well not, and they might intentionally host malicious apps as part of a front. Further, Google and Apple are quick to remove malicious apps from their stores when discovered, making shopping there safer still.
Review apps carefully
Check out the developer — have they published several other apps with many downloads and good reviews? A legit app typically has quite a few reviews, whereas malicious apps might have only a handful of (phony) five-star reviews. Lastly, look for typos and poor grammar in both the app description and screenshots. They could be a sign that a hacker slapped the app together and quickly deployed it.
Yet better than combing through user reviews yourself is getting a recommendation from a trusted source, like a well-known publication or from app store editors themselves. In this case, much of the vetting work has been done for you by an established reviewer. A quick online search like “best fitness apps” or “best apps for travelers” should turn up articles from legitimate sites that can suggest good options and describe them in detail before you download.
Keep an eye on app permissions
Another way hackers weasel their way into your device is by getting permissions to access things like your location, contacts, and photos — and they’ll use malicious apps to do it. If an app asks for way more than you bargained for, like a simple puzzle game that asks for access to your camera or microphone, it might be a scam. Delete the app.
Lock your phone — and keep an eye on it too
Some bad actors will try to install spyware on phones themselves. However, this requires access, time, and effort to pull off. Locking your phone and always keeping it close can help prevent bad actors from infecting your phone this way.
Another step you can take is to familiarize yourself with the remote locking and wiping features of your mobile device. Many manufacturers offer this feature on mobile devices. Strongly consider using it in the event of loss or theft.
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