There are more reasons than ever to understand how to protect your personal information.
Major hacks seem ever more frequent. Investigators believe that a set of top-secret National Security Agency hacking tools were offered to online bidders this summer.
And many of those worried about expanded government surveillance by the N.S.A. and other agencies have taken steps to secure their communications.
In a recent Medium post, Quincy Larson, the founder of Free Code Camp, an open-source community for learning to code, detailed the reasons it might be useful for people to make their personal data more difficult for attackers to access.
“When I use the term ‘attacker’ I mean anyone trying to access your data whom you haven’t given express permission to,” he wrote. “Whether it’s a hacker, a corporation, or even a government.”
In an interview, Mr. Larson walked us through some of the basic steps he recommended. We added a few of our own, based on additional interviews.
We encourage you to write back with feedback on this article. If the instructions are too vague, the apps aren’t working for you or you have additional questions, we want to hear about it. Send an email to [email protected]
Now, let’s encrypt.
1. Download Signal, or Start Using WhatsApp to send text messages.
Encryption is a fancy computer-person word for scrambling your data until no one can understand what it says without a key. But encrypting is more complex than just switching a couple of letters around.
Mr. Larson said that by some estimates, with the default encryption scheme that Apple uses, “you’d have to have a supercomputer crunching day and night for years to be able to unlock a single computer.”
He said that the best way to destroy data was not to delete it, because it could potentially be resurrected from a hard drive, but to encode it in “a secure form of cryptography.”
Signal is one of the most popular apps for those who want to protect their text messaging. It is free and extremely easy to use. And unlike Apple’s iMessage, which is also encrypted, the code it uses to operate is open-source.
“You can be sure by looking at the code that they’re not doing anything weird with your data,” Mr. Larson said.
“In general, the idea behind the app is to make privacy and communication as simple as possible,” said Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of Open Whisper Systems, the organization that developed Signal.
That means that the app allows you to use emojis, send pictures and enter group texts.
One bit of friction: You do have to persuade your friends to join the service too, if you want to text them. The app makes that easy to do.
WhatsApp, the popular chat tool, uses Signal’s software to encrypt its messaging. And in Facebook Messenger and Google’s texting app Allo, you can turn on an option that encrypts your messages.
Here’s how to do that on Facebook. Here’s how to do it on Allo.
Mr. Marlinspike said that the presidential election had sparked a lot of interested in Signal, leading to a “substantial increase in users.”
When asked to speculate why that was, Mr. Marlinspike simply said, “Donald Trump is about to be in control of the most powerful, invasive and least accountable surveillance apparatus in the world.”
To download Signal, click here for iOS, or here for Android.
2. Protect your computer’s hard drive with FileVault or BitLocker.
Your phone may be the device that lives in your pocket, but Mr. Larson described the computer as the real gold mine for personal information.
Even if your data were password protected, someone who gained access to your computer “would have access to all your files if they were unencrypted.”
Luckily, both Apple and Windows offer means of automatic encryption that simply need to be turned on.
Here’s the link to do that for Apple computers. Here’s the one for Windows computers.
3. The way you handle your passwords is probably wrong and bad.
You know this by now. Changing your passwords frequently is one of the simplest things you can do to protect yourself from digital invasion.
But making up new combinations all the time is a hassle.
Mr. Larson recommends password managers, which help store many passwords, with one master password. He said that he uses LastPass, but knows plenty of people who use 1Password and KeePass, and that he doesn’t have a strong reason to recommend one over another.
Not every security expert trusts password managers. Some noted that LastPass itself got hacked last year.
So that means you may want to write them down in one secure location, perhaps a Post-it note at home. It seems more far-fetched that a hacker would bother to break into your home for a Post-it note than find a way into your computer.
If you take that route, we suggest setting a weekly or biweekly calendar reminder to change your passwords.
As far as making passwords up goes: Don’t be precious about it. Use a random word (an object near you while you’re hunched over your Post-it) and a combination of numbers. If you’re writing passwords down, you don’t have to worry about making them memorable.
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