Sunscreen, Seat Belts & Deadbolts

[This article is part of a Beginners Week blog series from my publisher, Apress.]

While humans have had several millennia to adapt to the dangers of the natural world and many decades to react to the advancements of the modern age, the virtual world of the internet is relatively new. The risks of the physical world also tend to be more readily perceptible to humans… our senses warn us when something feels hot, smells noxious, sounds threatening, or looks unsafe. The risks in the world of the internet, computers and smart devices are harder to see and feel. To make matters worse, the complex web of technologies that enable this marvelous world of information and entertainment seem far beyond the comprehension of the average person. We’re forced to either trust the makers of these products and services, or not participate in modern life.

All is Not Lost

But I’m here to tell you that it’s not as hopeless as it may seem. There are many simple things we can all do to protect our devices and our data. You don’t need a degree in biology to understand why wearing sunscreen protects your skin from overexposure to sunlight. You don’t need a degree in physics to see the benefit of wearing a seat belt in a car crash. And you don’t need a degree in criminology to get how a sturdy deadbolt and some motion-sensitive flood lights can make your home less attractive to burglars.

The same is true for protecting your digital life. You don’t need a degree in computer science to live safely in the Information Age. You can protect yourself from computer malware by installing basic antivirus software. Disabling third-party cookies on your web browser will stop much of the tracking of your web habits. Using a password manager will allow you to create unique, strong passwords to protect your web accounts from hackers. Backing up your data will protect your precious photos and documents from computer failure or theft. Using a trustworthy VPN service when connecting to the internet from a public network (coffee shop, airport, hotel, etc) can prevent others from snooping on you.

You can save yourself a lot of heartache by simply practicing good internet hygiene. Don’t open any attachment in an email that you didn’t explicitly request. Don’t install software suggested by pop-up web messages. (If you really think you need it, go to the official source for that software and install it from there.) Don’t give out any more information than absolutely necessary. Restrict permissions on all your phone apps and delete any apps you don’t need.

Tips and Tricks

This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of simple, mostly free things we can all do right now to protect ourselves in the digital realm. My book has over 150 of them! You can find several online resources for non-technical people, as well, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self-Device guide, DuckDuckGo’s Device Privacy Tips, and of course, my own website.

But you can (and should) take it a step further. While understanding what to do is important, understanding why you should do it is even better. Learning the basics of computers and the internet is not as hard as you think. Pick up a beginners book or two, find a style that works for you. This is the world we live in today. Gaining even a rudimentary understanding can give you more confidence, develop your instincts, and inoculate you against the most common mistakes.

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