It’s a new year, and for many people that means New Year’s Resolutions, a time-honored tradition where we pledge to better ourselves. While I can’t do much to help you with any physical-based goals like weight loss or eating better, I do have some thoughts to offer on how to improve your cybersecurity and digital privacy this coming year. So let’s take a moment to check our basics and discuss some fundamental things we should be doing to protect our privacy and security.
Privacy & Security 101
I don’t want to waste your time with the same privacy and security basics that get repeated over and over, but at the same time I know that for some readers it’s possible that you’ve yet to be exposed to that stuff. According to XKCD, every day there’s about 10,000 people learning something for the first time so if you’re one of today’s 10,000 here’s the top two tips for you to look into: using strong, unique passwords and two-factor authentication on every account. Doing those two things will put you probably in the top 5% - if not higher – of cybersecurity. Also switch to a privacy-respecting search engine and remove as many apps as possible from your phone. But that’s just the beginning, and while I don’t want to downplay the immense importance of these techniques, I also don’t want to just repeat the same 500 articles that pop up on the front page of your favorite search engine. Let’s move on to some other foundational techniques and tools that everyone should incorporate into their lives.
Get Off Chrome
Your choice of web browser matters. Your web browser is your gateway to the internet – on desktop, your browser is likely your main link to your email, entertainment, social connectivity, and more. Even on mobile your browser probably helps you quickly find answers to questions, check the menu of a restaurant you're considering going to, or something else that you don't do often enough to warrant downloading the app. And right now, the most popular browser is Google Chrome, which is essentially just spyware. You can protect your privacy by switching to almost any other browser. If privacy is your main aim, I recommend Firefox with some adjustments. If you value security, perhaps a browser like Brave might be more appropriate. For Android, I make the same recommendations. For iOS, Safari is your best bet with a few adjustments to the settings.
Change Your DNS
If you took my advice above in the 101 section, you started using a password manager and putting unique passwords on all your devices and accounts. That should also include your router (seriously, I cannot stress enough how important it is not never use the default login on any internet-connected device). While you’re at it, you should change your DNS. Think of a DNS like a phonebook for the internet, and using your default DNS means that your internet service provider – and in the case of an Android, Google – can see every website you connect to. How to change your DNS will vary based on the router you use, but a quick web search should yield some pleasant results. What DNS should you use? PrivacyTools.io has a great list to choose from. And once you’ve done that, see if that DNS provider offers an app for your phone. This is a change you probably won’t even notice but it will increase your privacy immeasurably. And in some cases, you might notice it! I downloaded AdGuard in late 2020 and I don’t think I’ve seen an ad on my phone since.
Freeze Your Credit
If you live in the US (and in many other countries), you have a credit score. It’s that annoying thing you never consented to where all of your financial habits are tracked and rated, and it often affects really important things like interest rates on loans, whether or not you can rent an apartment, and in some cases if you get hired for a job. It’s important to protect and easy to damage, even easier if someone steals your identity. Fortunately, protecting it is easy, too. You can freeze your credit for free in most places, including all of the US. Contrary to what the name implies, freezing your credit will still allow the score to change, so if you’re working on improving your credit score you have nothing to lose. But it does make it harder for anyone to open an account, which means it’s hard for criminals to steal your identity and open fraudulent accounts in your name, which is typically what they do with a stolen identity. And in case you think that’s not likely to happen to you, remember the 2017 Equifax Data Breach that compromised literally half of America and millions of citizens of other countries. The point is, enough information to steal your identity is probably already out there as we speak. So at this point, ignoring it is just tempting fate and being negligent. Don’t be negligent. Be proactive.
Cash is king. Researchers have discovered that cash has a positive effect on one’s finances. For one, it’s easier to budget. Put $100 in an envelope for groceries and once it’s gone, it’s gone. No accidental overspending. For another, researchers have found that paying with cash actually hurts and makes you appreciate your purchase more, making you less likely to spend flippantly and more likely to appreciate your purchase when you do spend. But why stop there? In a world where companies use your spending habits to determine your credit worthiness and advertise to you, your financial habits can – and someday soon will – be used to determine things like your health insurance rates based on the groceries you buy. Looking at your transaction history can reveal a startlingly accurate pattern: how much you earn, where you work, where you live, your patterns of life and activity, what your interests are, even your ethnicity or sexual orientation. The best way to protect yourself from these invasions of privacy is to use cash whenever possible. The lack of a consistent transaction history with your bank will render whatever data they sell meaningless.
The sad part about new years resolutions is that they frequently get broken. Usually by mid-February people have given up. Sleeping in is easier than going to the gym. They ate that piece of cake at Bob’s retirement party so they gave up on their diet. Meeting that special someone blows after the third failed date. But I encourage you not to give up on self improvement. Every day is a new day to try again. My own resolution this year was to use cash more. I got real lazy and started using my debit card a lot toward the end of 2020. Already I’ve used my debit card two or three times. But that’s not gonna stop me from trying again and bringing a stack of bills with me to the grocery store this weekend. I’m a firm believer that failure is only failure when you give up. So this year, resolve to take your privacy and security into your own hands. Start with these basics, and if you slip up, get up and keep going. Privacy really is a journey, not a destination. Good luck with all your resolutions, and have a happy 2021.
You can catch up with Nate aka The New Oil and find more of his work ot his website at thenewoil@xyz