More and more these days, we are becoming more aware of the need for security on our computers, and for our entire internet experience. But how do you keep things safe in a world full of hackers and cyber attacks? No method is 100% secure or foolproof, but you can certainly take steps to make your experience much safer.
Why do I need to secure my connection?
You should secure your connection regardless of what you actually use your internet for. The reason for this is that most of us manage some sort of accounts online, including bank accounts. For many banks, the security of your online account can hinge on the security of your email account, and if your email account is compromised, then everything you do online could be compromised.
So how do hackers get access to your stuff? There are a lot of different ways this can be done, and I won’t go into detail about all of them, but I will explain the basics. One method is very simple, and it basically involves a hacker “sniffing” the traffic on a wireless network. Even if you’re only using your home network, wireless network security is very insecure, and is easily broken, so you cannot rely on your routers security settings to keep you safe. Always assume that other people could be on your network, and see what you’re doing. Once a wireless network has been accessed, an attacker can use a program like WireShark to capture all the traffic. Applications like WireShark, called packet sniffers, are able to capture and save all the traffic on your network, which means an attacker can read your user name and password. This is often protected by SSL (secure socket layer) encryption, but if it is intercepted before encryption takes place, this doesn’t do you any good.
Other methods may include malware on your system, which can log everything you type, as you type it, which compromises everything. Most antivirus programs will catch most of these rogue programs, but there is never any guarantee. Running Windows as an operating system is risky for web browsing, especially if you use Internet Explorer. If you are using Internet Explorer, please stop it now, and go download Google Chrome, or Mozilla Firefox. Internet Explorer is a bad idea because the browser itself is tied into the operating system, and if the browser is compromised (very common for Internet Explorer) then your entire system is compromised. The first step is using a better browser. Now, let’s explore some options to keep you more secure.
Securing your connection
Using a VPN
What is a VPN? VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. When you are connected to a VPN, all network traffic is encrypted, and routed through a VPN server. The VPN server then communicates with the internet on behalf of your computer, collects the requested data, encrypts it, and sends it back to your computer, where it is then decrypted. Using a VPN will in most cases keep you anonymous on the internet, and in many cases can also bypass restrictions on web site content (like YouTube only allowing a video in the USA, but you’re in Canada… if your VPN is in the USA, then YouTube thinks you’re in the USA).
There are a plethora of VPN services available, each with their own benefits and caveats. Most cost money, but most will also provide a free trial period to see if you like the service. Note that in most cases, you will experience slower internet speeds with a VPN, but if you only enable the VPN as needed (when logging into accounts, for example) then you are unlikely to notice any slowdown at all.
If you want a VPN, but don’t want to pay, I recommend a service called Spotflux. The service is great for the price of free, and apps for iOS and Android are available if you choose to be secure on all your devices, albeit for a small subscription fee.
But what about malware?
Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about the malware. There’s actually a quite elegant solution to dealing with malware. Don’t run Windows! Well, do run Windows, just don’t use it. What am I talking about? Virtualization.
Virtualization is a method of running another operating system in a sandbox environment on top of your main operating system. I get it, you probably don’t want to give up Windows. You don’t have to. But you can still make use of the security in operating systems like Linux.
For this, we need to download and install virtualization software. Don’t worry, you can get really great software for free. For this, I recommend either using VirtualBox by Oracle, or VMWare Player, both of which are free for personal use. The next thing you need to do is download your new operating system. For the purpose of this article, I recommend Linux Mint, which is completely free. You can grab it here.
I have recommended Linux Mint because it is probably the easiest to install and use. If you’re coming from Windows, you’ll feel right at home in Linux Mint.
Installing Linux Mint in VirtualBox
First of all as those versions is in use, Linux Mint settings are not predefined in Virtual Box. So select Linux as type and select Linux 2.6 (or Linux 2.6 64 bit) as the version.
Set the RAM size at least 512 MB. 1GB is preferable.
Create new virtual machine and hard drive is straight forward and select the options that best suits you.
After the new Virtual Box is created do NOT start it now. Before that, right click the newly created machine template and select Settings.
Here, under the System settings, select Processor tab and then enable PAE/NX setting. After that start the virtual machine and select Linux Mint image file (iso) for installation process. (This setting should apply some other new Linux distributions as well.)
How does Linux make me more secure?
So what was the point of all that? Now you can run a Linux operating system on top of Windows. If you want to browse the internet, check email, or do online banking, load up your virtual Linux system and do it there. While there is no guarantee that using Linux will keep you completely safe, it will prevent 99.9% of all viruses and malware from infecting your computer, since most of them require Windows or Mac OS.
You can use Mozilla Firefox (included in Linux Mint) or you can download and install the Linux edition of Google Chrome.
As an added benefit of virtualization (which makes Linux in a virtual machine even better) you gain access to snapshots. Just finished installing Linux Mint? Take a snapshot. Now, if anything ever goes wrong with Linux (or, in the unlikely event you somehow get a virus on it) you can just restore a previous snapshot, and poof, it’s gone!
Of course, you could install Windows in the virtual machine, and just restore a snapshot after every use, but where’s the fun in that?
Above all else, you are the first line of defense.
Be smart, be responsible. Only click on things that you’re sure are safe. Use an antivirus, and keep it updated. Keep Windows/Mac OS/Linux updated. Don’t use Internet Exploder (see what I did there?).
Safe browsing out there folks!