Taking command of cyber risks: Tips and tools you can use now

keyboard with cybersecurity button
Cybersecurity is an ongoing chess match between those who have information and those who want it.

A guide to keeping your digital information exactly that: yours

By Tyler Sonnemaker
Medill Reports

Has your personal information leaked in a data breach? (Not sure? Use this tool to find out). How about passwords — still using “password” or “123456” for everything? Do you want to keep prying eyes away from health records, personal finances or information about your children?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions and want to better protect yourself online, this guide is for you. If you’re still wondering why you should care about cybersecurity or privacy, learn how tracking and hacking can impact even average internet users.

Keeping digital information private and secure is a constantly evolving chess match between those who have data and those who want it. While there are no foolproof strategies, you can significantly lower the risk of your personal information becoming an unwitting pawn.

This guide offers an evolving library of resources to help internet users lower their risk and develop better “digital hygiene” over time — it’s not something that can (or needs to) be tackled in one sitting. Instead, set a weekly or monthly calendar reminder to revisit your cybersecurity practices and look for ways to further improve them.

Setting up these tools and developing good digital hygiene takes time. But consider the time, money, hard work and memories you could lose if your data is lost or stolen and whether spending a few minutes on proactive measures might be worth it.

Everyone has different digital information and different types of people may want to access it, meaning each person’s balance between security and convenience may look different. Still, everyone should have a basic understanding of how their data moves through the internet and what tools below will help keep it safe along its journey.

Not sure if you’re “tech-savvy” enough to grasp all this or use it? Don’t worry! There are a range of tools included here that anyone can use and links to step-by-step setup instructions for each.

Your Data’s Journey Across the Internet

It’s time to stop thinking about your data existing in “cyberspace” and learn where and how it exists in physical space. This mindset will help you better identify vulnerabilities and take steps to secure your information as it traverses the internet. Below are three questions to help you think about the physical nature of data and networks.

WHAT information do you store and send digitally?

Most people don’t realize how much digital information they have — health records, banking and financial activity, social security numbers, private emails and messages, and information about their children, just to name a few examples. Think about what you share — both locally with your devices and across the internet — and what unwanted access to that data could mean.

WHERE does your information go?

A Word document might never leave your desktop. But when you hit “buy” on a new pair of Nike shoes, your credit card information may go from your computer to your router, through Comcast’s cable network, to an internet exchange in Chicago, and across more cables to an Amazon server in Umatilla, Oregon, before finally arriving in Nike’s system. Think about the different physical places where your data travels and what that means for your security and privacy.

WHO can see your information?

It’s rare that you’re the only person who can see your data. Device manufacturers, software developers, internet service and infrastructure providers, advertisers, criminals, and domestic and foreign governments all could be snooping on your information, whether you consent to it or not. Think about who has — or might try to gain — access to your information at the various points along its journey.

Now that you have a better frame through which to think about your digital security and privacy, what can you do to improve it?

What the experts say

Some people spend all day trying to win the cyber chess game, whether identifying security flaws, fighting legal battles over data breaches or researching cybersecurity policy issues. Here are a few of their top recommendations on how to protect your information online.

Review app privacy settings

“Take the time to review the privacy settings for any applications you download onto your phone. Many applications ask for access to your microphone, camera, location, or address book, when they don’t require that information in order to function properly.”

Lisa Hayes
Vice President, Strategy & General Counsel
Center for Democracy & Technology

Keep your software up to date

“Install software updates as soon as you possibly can after you’re told they’re recommended or available for you. [Operating system] updates, app updates on your devices. Many (if not most) of these updates are fixes to security holes someone discovered.”

Brandon Smith
Investigative journalist

Stay vigilant against phishing attempts

“A key (and easy) step is to be aware of  – and avoid – phishing attempts. This applies both as consumers in our own matters and also as employees at a business… [don’t] respond to requests for our logins, personal information, credit card, and bank information, or other sensitive information, even when the email looks like it’s coming from a legitimate source.”

Michelle Cohen
Partner and Chair of Privacy and Data Security
Ifrah Law PLLC

Beware of information revealed by your metadata

“People have a hard time online knowing who sees information where… and how much their metadata says about them. Google shares search history, but also location, age range, income range, and other data. You can do a surprising amount here by changing your browser settings, such as auto-deleting cookies and keeping your location always off.”

Calli Schroeder
Privacy and Data Security Attorney
Hintze Law PLLC

Check downloads for malware at VirusTotal

“After downloading and before installing software, I run it through VirusTotal. It’s almost like a second opinion before you open something. If I’m the first one to upload it there, I won’t install it because it might mean someone’s trying to target me with malware.”

Lee Neubecker
President & CEO
Great Lakes Forensics
(More tips from Lee on securing your home)

Cyber Tools and Tips Library

If you’ve made it this far and want more, check out the link below for the full library of tools and tips as well as setup instructions for each.


Photo at top: Cybersecurity is an ongoing chess match between those who have information and those who want it. (Photo Courtesy of Richard Patterson/Comparitech via Flickr under CC BY 2.0).