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TMCNet:  Stump the Geeks: New year is ideal time to protect your digital info

[January 09, 2013]

Stump the Geeks: New year is ideal time to protect your digital info

Jan 09, 2013 (The News & Observer (Raleigh - McClatchy-Tribune News Service via COMTEX) -- I've never been enthusiastic about New Year's resolutions.

Most seem geared toward abandoning well-worn routines etched permanently in our brains _ not exactly fitting for a holiday that celebrates wiping the slate clean.

But resolving to upgrade your digital security is a bit different.

The topic is far from novel for this column; I share related advice from our tech experts here pretty regularly. But the new year is an ideal time to protect your electronic information because it's a goal you can (mostly) accomplish in one sitting. And unlike efforts to stick to a new gym schedule, there are plenty of tools that can do the work for you.

That's not to say better security doesn't come with some sacrifice.

After years of using only a few passwords for all of my online accounts _ a tactic that puts my email, social media profiles and even bank accounts at risk _ I now have unique, complicated passcodes for everything. All of those passwords live on a tiny, encrypted keychain USB drive I picked up for a few bucks. One password gives me access to all the others, and nothing is stored on a hard drive or cloud service that can be stolen or hacked.

The login process is admittedly more complicated, but because there's no way around my new "routine," there's no risk of relapsing into bad habits.

But there's more to a New Year's security audit than just resetting passwords.

BACK UP, BACK UP, BACK UP: Jeff Crume, IBM IT security architect and author of the blog Inside Internet Security, says one step bears repeating: back up, back up, back up.

"No matter how hard you try, there's always a chance that your system could get hacked," Crume said in an email. "So what's the next best thing since we don't have perfect security A means to recover any data that might be lost." In addition to services like Backupify (free to $19.99 a month), external hard drives are cheap buys.

"There's really no good excuse for not having one connected to your system taking automatic backups while you sleep," Crume said.

Malware and spyware protection are also must-haves since such code can be incredibly efficient at acquiring your personal information. There are plenty of options, and most run automatically so you can avoid having to change your routine (although running manual scans every so often, Crume says, is always a good idea).

KEEPING CURRENT: And don't neglect the other hardware responsible for getting you online.

"A number of years ago, it was typical for a wireless router's default settings to have all security features turned off," Crume said. "Setup was complicated, and manufacturers and retailers would rather not have to field the onslaught of customer support issues that inevitably resulted from configuration errors." That practice has changed, but if you can't remember the last time you checked out your wireless router, examine the encryption settings to see whether there's a WPA2 option. Crume said the older WEP encryption is now easy to crack, so if WPA2 isn't supported, it might be time for a new device. Also, check to see whether your router needs a firmware update so you can apply any relevant security patches.

"Routers need updating just like your operating systems and applications do, although not as frequently," Crume said.

One last thing, Crume advises, is to become an educated consumer. A number of blogs and tech publications like PCWorld.com notify readers of security issues so they know what to look out for.

"The field of computer security is constantly changing as new attacks and countermeasures break through," Crume said. "It's a good idea to invest some time in keeping current with the latest trends." ___ (Think you can stump the geeks Send your high-tech question to stumpthegeeks@newsobserver.com. Please include your name, address and daytime phone number. Individual replies are not given.) ___ (c)2013 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) Visit The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) at www.newsobserver.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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