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Digital security for tech-savvy students

Data leaks are on the rise. Here are some tips and free apps to protect you

by Kate Ng
An opened lock, sitting on a Apple laptop.
Data breaches may be inevitable, but losing your accounts is not. (Pixabay/Kris)

You may be cautious when it comes to protecting your loved ones — avoiding shady links and owning antivirus software — but others may not share the same vigilance. Just last year, 5,500 accounts within the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) were compromised in an attack. But even after an account is compromised, there are ways to minimize the fallout.

Here are some tips for cybersecurity month that I learned after experiencing a data leak.

One password, one account

Creating several complex passwords for all your accounts may sound like an annoyance, but it will save you hours in the long run. All it takes is one leaked password before you experience cyberattacks en masse, especially if your accounts are secured with variants of the same password.

Unless you carry a notebook full of passwords, password managers are the way to go. Google’s password manager lets you know when a password is compromised, and it can be integrated with smartphones and tablets, which is beneficial for students owning multiple devices. It may not be the most advanced, but it’s free and easy to use. Against modern password managers, hackers will need two million years to breach your cat’s Instagram.

Watch your step

When you sign in online to file taxes or call the bank, you might be greeted with security questions. Things like “What is your dream job?” or “What is your favorite colour?” If you answered any of these truthfully, you have created an opening for hackers.

With social media leaving a delectable trail of identifying details for prospective hackers, birthdays and pet names are not the secure password answers they used to be. It’s in your best interest to put in a jumble of numbers, write a completely irrelevant word or form totally unrelated passwords. For example: my best friend celebrates her birthday on June 50th.

Public Wi-Fi and you

This will be familiar if you’ve watched YouTube in the past two years: criminals are stealing your information. While not every Starbucks hosts cybercriminals in ski masks, information over public Wi-Fi is particularly vulnerable. If you want to protect this weak point, you’ll need encryption.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) use servers across the world to hide your location while encrypting your data. Unlike the Onion Router, VPNs allow you to control the server your computer appears in — which is a necessary tool to watch shows on streaming sites with regional locks. Unfortunately, most require subscriptions.

For those who want to safely use public Wi-Fi at Starbucks or Ryerson University without paying any fees, Onion Routers encrypt your data using computers worldwide. While you cannot choose your location, it provides similar protection to a VPN.

Computers for your computer

For students who need extreme protection, install a virtual machine. If you frequently download files from unknown sources, this is one of your best options.

A virtual machine is an application that behaves exactly like a computer. After setup, the app performs like a computer with its own hard drive, operating system and files. If the virtual machine was attacked by a virus, your real computer is safe.

While clunky, this solution provides some of the best protection against direct attacks and viruses.

Is all of this necessary?

Nope. It’s up to you to find the right balance between ease of use and security. While less demanding techniques like password managers may benefit everyone, someone who never uses public Wi-Fi may not need a VPN. The important thing is knowing that such options and vulnerabilities exist.

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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