9 Cyber Security Steps Every Online Student Should Take

cyber securityAs an online student you may be accessing your courses from a variety of Internet connections, devices, and locations, potentially exposing your computer and personal information in the process.

October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month sponsored by the National Cyber Security Alliance and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The DHS explains that, “being constantly connected brings increased risk of theft, fraud, and abuse.”

EDUCAUSE recently published an article highlighting the importance of computer network security for college and university system administrators, but there’s a lot of information available for students, too. What can you do to protect your computer, mobile devices, privacy, and identity? Here are a few steps you can take right now to manage the risks involved with public computing.

1) Create strong account passwords.

The recommendations for what makes a “strong” password change as both technology and skills of those trying to hack our accounts change. ELearning expert Mike Taylor asks, “How good are your passwords?” Use The Password Meter to test what you are currently using, then follow Taylor’s tips for choosing improved passwords that are both memorable and secure.

2) Set-up two-factor authentication.

Creating a solid password offers one layer of protection. Two-factor options allow you to add a second layer (such as a code sent to your phone via text message) when adding access to an account from a new device or retrieving a forgotten password. This isn’t an option with every platform, but you should take advantage of the opportunity to activate it when you can.

Google, Yahoo, Dropbox, and Evernote are just a few of the platforms you may be using in your courses that allow you to set up a second authentication method in your account settings. Check TwoFactorAuth.org for a list of other sites that offer this option. PCWorld.com provides a more in depth explanation of how two-factor authentication “makes your data harder to compromise” and “can alert you to break-in attempts.”

3) Protect your devices with lockscreen options.

Make it difficult for anyone who picks up your smartphone, or sits down in front of your computer, to use it. Check the setting options for each of your devices to find out how you can restrict access. For example, PCMag.com shares advice to “tweak your Power settings in Control Panel so your laptop demands a password when it wakes up again.” Your phone settings may allow you to set up a second password or PIN to unlock the home screen, or include other identity verification features such as facial recognition.

4) Back up your work.

What if you lose your laptop, tablet, or smartphone? What if your device is stolen? Setting up strong passwords, two-factor authentication, and lockscreen options will make it hard for someone else to access your files, but you’ll also need to continue your course work and potentially recreate those files on a new computer at some point. Consider investing in an external hard drive or selecting a free cloud storage system (e.g., Google Drive, Dropbox), and then make sure you are periodically (i.e., daily, weekly, monthly) backing up your files so you’ll have a copy of everything ready should a problem arise.

5) Be cautious with public Wi-Fi access.

Public Internet access can be a lifesaver when we are away from home or the office. Logging in to these networks isn’t without risk, however. Whether you are connecting to the Internet on campus, in a library, at a friend’s house, or from a coffee shop, keep these suggestions in mind:

  • Change your security and sharing settings. Gizmag.com recommends turning on firewalls and turning off sharing options before connecting to public wi-fi. You may, for example, have “printer sharing” activated at home to allow access to a wireless printer.
  • Consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Gizmag also recommends several of these services as a “secure and private way to connect to open networks.” VPN software usually requires a download and account set up, and free tools are available.
  • Install all software updates. No matter whether you are using a Mac or PC, laptop or other mobile device, software companies are constantly issuing updates to their products to make them more secure. As Forbes.com advises, “data security is an arms race, and to keep your defenses up, it is crucial that you’re running the latest updates for your operating system and web browser.”
  • Look for URLs that begin with “https://” or “shttp://.” Owners of these web addresses have taken additional steps related to information security. This is just one of the many tips included in The Department of Homeland Security’s Stop.Think.Connect. Campaign. Additional suggestions for college students encourage careful consideration before logging in and out of your school and personal accounts.

6) Don’t forget about your home network.

How secure is your home Internet connection? If you have a wireless set-up there are steps you should take to restrict access. Earlier this week Yahoo Tech Columnist Dan Tynan published “10 Ways to Protect Your Home Network from Hackers.” The suggestions include selecting advanced encryption options for your wireless router and changing the system’s default name and password.

7) Self-censor your social media use.

How much information do you openly share about yourself through sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram? If you haven’t done so recently, review your privacy settings and make decisions about what you are sharing and with whom. Location check-ins, photos, and other status updates can reveal a lot of detail about your home and habits. USA Today College suggests being “mindful of your ‘digital footprint’” as one precaution against identity theft.

8) Ask your school about available cyber security support and resources.

You may be surprised to hear that your college or university is not only aware of student cyber security concerns, but also actively providing assistance. Montgomery College’s Office of Information Technology and the College of Saint Elizabeth, for example, offer specific guidelines for handling suspicious email and instructions for accessing one-on-one support. Contact your tech help desk and library services for more information. Resources can include tutorials and webinars, free or discounted virus protection software, and guidelines for safely accessing your online courses and school accounts.

9) Stay up-to-date on cyber security issues.

Make the most of Cyber Security Awareness Month by increasing your knowledge and improving your online habits now, but don’t stop on November 1st. As you complete the steps outlined above, think about you might expand your activities throughout the year to include the following:

  • Develop a plan to maintain your accounts and add related tasks, such as reviewing privacy settings and changing passwords, to your calendar.
  • Follow Internet security resources from your social accounts. Start with the #NCSAM hashtag, and @Cyber and @STOPTHINKCONNECT on Twitter for event updates, tips, and more.

This list includes actions that anyone can take to maintain online safety and privacy. You don’t need any specialized technical training or experience to monitor your accounts and maintain your computer and mobile devices. What will you do today to increase your awareness of cyber security?

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog