What a year 2020 has been… I think we’re all ready to put it behind us and look ahead to a better 2021. Each year I put together a list of ways you can improve your cybersecurity and digital privacy throughout the coming year. New Year’s Resolutions for Cybersecurity, if you will.
The lists were getting a little repetitive, so this year I want to add some new ideas. However, I strongly encourage you to review the ideas from 2020 and 2019, as well . If you haven’t done those, you definitely want to consider putting them on your list for 2021!
Perform a Home Network Audit
In the age of IoT, the number of devices we have connected to our home networks is exploding. And as we like to say, the “S” in “IoT” is for security. Meaning there isn’t any. Or it’s very poor. Calling a device “smart” doesn’t make it so. Anything that you can connect to your home network, either wired or wireless (wifi), is a potential chink in your digital armor. So I’m challenging you to take a long hard look at your home network and all the devices attached to it.
To do this, you’ll need to log in to your home’s network router, which is almost surely a wifi router. It’s the box that’s probably directly connected to your modem from your cable, fiber or phone service provider. This box is in charge of connecting all your devices to the internet. To do that, it gives each and every device a unique identifier – an IP address – via a process called DHCP.
Don’t let that scare you. All you really need to know is that every smart device on your home network has a unique address. To get a list of those addresses, you’ll need to log into your router’s admin page and find the list of “DHCP clients”. This will include wired and wireless. If you have a guest network as well as a regular network, this might be two different lists. Read the last section of this article for help logging into your router’s admin page.
Do a Device Inventory
Now you need to find the list of DHCP clients, or devices connected to your router. If you’re lucky, this list will also show a friendly name for the device like “Fire TV” or “iPhone”. But either way, you’re going to need to map all the IP addresses in this list to the devices in your house. It might help to print off the list. And remember, if you’re using a guest network, you may have two different lists.
There are two main ways to map the IP addresses to the devices. First, you can go to the device in question and find its IP address. How you find this will vary from device to device. If you can view the device’s settings, either directly or through a controller app on your phone, find the network settings. The IP address should be listed there.
Second, you can just try turning the device off and seeing which device disappears from the wifi router’s list of clients. The tricky part here is that when you plug the device back in, it might be given a new (different) IP address. But for our purposes, we’re just trying to make sure we can account for each device in the list.
Remove Unused Devices
If you find any devices you forgot about and aren’t really using, then get rid of that device. Or at least turn it off till you do need it. If you have a device that’s connected to your network but doesn’t really need to be (e.g., you’re not really using the “smart” features), then disconnect the network (Ethernet) cable or disable the wifi feature. Every device you remove is one less potential vulnerability. This is called reducing your attack surface.
Upgrade Device Software
This is critically important. Every smart device contains a little computer chip that runs software. All software has bugs. As manufacturers find and fix these bugs, you need to make sure your device is getting those updates. Also, new features are often added, including security features. If your device has a way to inspect the software version, check with the manufacturer to make sure you have the latest. If not, use the manufacturer’s support website to figure out how to update that software. If there’s a setting to allow it to automatically update itself, be sure to enable that feature.
Remove Unmaintainable or Unsupported Devices
If you find a device whose software cannot be upgraded or that is no longer supported with software updates, you should seriously considered getting rid of it. You can replace it with a newer model or a different model that allows for software upgrades. If you can’t update the software, that device is a ticking time bomb just waiting to be hacked. The bad guys love these devices and commandeer millions of them every year to do their bidding. They recruit these devices into botnets and use them against websites they don’t like, to mine cryptocurrency, to spy on you, or to hack other devices in your home.
Register Your Devices & Update Regularly
Once you’ve done your audit, you should seriously consider registering all the remaining devices with the manufacturer. Use a junk email account, but one that you’ll check at least once a month. Yes, this might get you on a bunch of mailing lists, but you want to be notified if security issues are found with your devices and there’s a software update that you need to apply.
Set a reminder to check your smart devices at least once a month for updates – unless by some miracle, all your devices are capable of upgrading themselves automatically.
More Great Ideas
Again, you can look back at the lists from from 2020 and 2019 for more ideas. But you also check out my 200th podcast, which has several more ideas for New Year’s Resolutions from top experts. (You can also learn how to win part of the $1800 giveaway!) You might also have a listen to the Best of 2020 podcast, which also is chock full of great ideas to improve your security and privacy. And of course, my book has 170 tips in it, complete with step-by-step instructions and even pictures.
Set a goal for yourself to improve your cyber life! And know that by doing that, you’re actually helping everyone else, too. Like human viruses, we can develop a level of digital “herd immunity”. When most people take basic cyber precautions and prevent the needless spread of malware through insecure devices. And if you’re already in good shape, then your goal should be to help someone else!