David Petraeus served as head of the CIA, the most sophisticated of intelligence networks, but even he couldn’t protect his data online and on his computer. He should have taken these tips to protect yourself digitally. By Lien Hoang. Photo by Fred Wissink.
Use hypertext transfer protocol secure, or HTTPS, when surfing the internet. It’s simple, easy and most importantly, safe. HTTPS protects your data by encrypting it as you send it from your computer to your home modem, through your internet service provider (ISP), through the phone book of the internet that is the domain name system (DNS), until finally reaching the server of the website you’re accessing. This means third parties can’t read your information as it is passing through each of these steps (ie grab your passwords). Outsiders can only see that you’re accessing the server. How to use HTTPS? Just type https://www before the URL. Some websites add HTTPS automatically, though some others won’t recognise it even if you type it in yourself.
Encrypt sensitive messages with Encipher.it. This barebones website gives you a space to type a message, which it will encrypt once you enter a password or key. The message then appears as a jumble of meaningless letters and numbers you can email to a friend, who must know the key to decode the message.
Download the software TrueCrypt, which builds a sort of lock safe on your computer or wherever you choose, such as an external hard drive or USB. You can produce as many “safes” as you’d like, which are password-protected folders of any size, in which to store private files. Once installed, open TrueCrypt and click “Create Volume” to start a new folder or container, select the location to put the folder, such as your Desktop, decide how many MB or GB the folder can hold, and then create a password. After the container is produced, you can select it from the main TrueCrypt window, and “mount” it to a lettered drive (the A drive, the B drive, etc.) using the password. Open the drive, and start saving files to it.
Clear all unwanted data with CCleaner. You might think you deleted that old Word document that holds your bank account number, even the copy you deleted from the recycle bin. But Microsoft Word creates backup copies that don’t show up in any search, except by third parties who know what they’re doing. CCleaner takes care of that, permanently trashing what you thought had been disposed of already. It also cleans up cookies, memory dumps, and other important caches. Run CCleaner weekly, or at least clear your browser’s history and cookies on your own.
Browse online anonymously through the Tor Project, which uses random servers worldwide to repeatedly encrypt the data you send so websites you access aren’t traced back to your unique Internet Protocol (IP) address. Foreign Policy magazine listed the free browser’s creators in its 2012 Top Global Thinkers for a service that has been a “critical tool over the last two years” for “activists and journalists from Bahrain to Syria”. Tor is too slow for daily use, but it does help you get around a Facebook block. There are similar services like virtual private networks (VPN) and proxies such as Hidemyass.com. Remember all the steps described in Tip One? Think of these services as going from your IP address to the final server by tunneling under all these steps.
Sign in to websites like Gmail using two-step verification. It’s much less cumbersome than it sounds. You add a phone number to, in this case, your Gmail account. The company sends an automated call or SMS to that number with a code, which you enter online after signing in with your usual user name and password. This protects you from people who try to hack into your email, because even if they steal your password, they’ll be asked for the code that was sent to your phone, which they don’t have. You can set up the service to ask for a code every time you sign in, or only once a month for trusted computers. I use the service in Vietnam, but turn it off when travelling, not that I have to: Google gives you 10 one-time-use codes you should save in your wallet in case you’re ever caught without your phone.
Turn off geo-tracking on your smartphone. Mobile devices are especially vulnerable, so the only way to shield them is to remove the battery when not in use. Another trick to use occasionally is to shield the phone with tin, as in aluminum foil, which blocks anyone trying to tap the phone or access it remotely. That’s why executives at a sensitive meeting sometimes toss all their phones into a tin box until the end of the meeting. But this also blocks incoming and outgoing data, such as calls.
Change your passwords regularly. Don’t use full words because hackers have programs to scan for passwords by going through every word in the dictionary. The classic tip is to take the first letter of each word in a phrase that’s easy to remember. For example, “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks” would be: atokwtpuk. And to state the obvious, use numbers and symbols to throw off the chain of predictably, and don’t use the same password for multiple accounts.