Cybersecurity 101: A beginner's guide to online safety

15 tips to protect your data and stay safe online

The internet is littered with stories about data breaches and people who have lost their accounts to cybercriminals. But don’t be alarmed! It doesn’t take much to protect yourself from the vast majority of attacks.

We’ve put together a list that anyone can follow to improve their digital defenses. You’ll enjoy more peace of mind while using your favorite devices and services, knowing that you’re following best practices to keep your logins and personal data safe.

1. Use strong, unique passwords

That means no common passwords like 123456, qwerty, and password, or anything that includes your name or date of birth. They should also be long – you’ll need at least 16 characters. Additionally, you should never reuse a password, no matter how random it is. Whether you need to remember 10 or 10,000 passwords, all of them still need to be strong and unique.

If you use the same set of characters for everything, you’re putting yourself at risk, so using a password generator is a good start. Of course, no one can remember 100 different passwords – especially if they’re random strings like UmxT9t4s8B6sVhr6mvSo. The solution? Adopt a password manager that can do the creating and remembering for you.

2. Share passwords securely

Everyone has passwords that they need to share from time to time. At home, it could be the Wi-Fi password or the credentials for a video streaming service. At work, you might need to share a subscription to a trade publication or the license key for a particular piece of software.

Don’t rely on Post-It Notes, insecure text messages, emails, spreadsheets, or random text documents for these – switch to a password manager like 1Password. It’s secure and convenient because everyone will know exactly where to find and access your shared credentials.

3. Use two-factor authentication everywhere it’s offered

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is an extra layer of security that protects your accounts from thieves who have managed to find or deduce one of your passwords.

You can ask for a time-based one-time password (TOTP) to be sent any time someone tries to sign into your account – it could be via email, a dedicated authentication app, or text message (though SMS is vulnerable to interception, so try to avoid this).

Whoever is trying to sign in will then be asked to submit the TOTP along with your password. It’s a great system because an attacker is unlikely to have access to both the password and the place where you retrieve your TOTPs.

4. Keep your devices up to date

Most operating systems give you the option to apply security updates automatically. As a general rule, you should only use hardware that can run the latest version of Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, or Android. And don’t use an operating system that is no longer receiving security updates, like Windows 7 – especially if you’re planning to use the internet.

5. Protect your devices with a strong password or PIN

That means your PIN can’t be 1111 or the year you were born (they’re simply too easy for a criminal to guess). Alternatively, use a biometric unlock method like Windows Hello or Face ID. Both are convenient without compromising your device’s overall security.

💡 Work tip

Keep your work and personal life separate

If you’ve been given a work computer, remember it’s just that: a device for work. Don’t give it to your children to play games, or to a relative who is desperate to check their emails. If you have permission to use your device outside of work, take special care to ensure your personal and corporate data is kept separate.

6. Consider encrypting your hard drives

Full-disk encryption (FDE) protects your system’s entire hard drive, including the operating system. If an attacker stole your device, they would be asked to provide the encryption key – which typically comes in the form of a password – to complete the boot-up process and access any data on the drive. To get started, follow the guide for your operating system:

7. Don’t leave your devices alone in public places

Don’t forget that you should be on your guard in cafes, hotel lobbies, and other public spaces. You should never leave your devices unattended, and if you need to get up momentarily – to greet someone or retrieve a coffee order, for example – you should lock them or take them with you, just in case.

💡 Work tip

Adopt the same mentality at work

Your office should be safe from criminals. Nevertheless, it’s important to lock your devices whenever you leave your desk. You don’t want to give anyone the chance to read your emails, steal sensitive company data, or take a picture of the top-secret project you’re working on.

8. Turn on any “Find My” feature that’s available

Enable any “Find My” service that’s available on your devices. As the name implies, it will help you pinpoint your laptop, tablet, or phone if it ever goes missing. If you’re particularly forgetful, consider investing in some Bluetooth trackers – like the ones made by Tile, or Apple’s AirTags – for other belongings that don’t have a Find My service built-in. Get started with the guides below:

9. Protect your router

Your home router needs to be patched and updated occasionally, just like your smartphone and computer. You should opt into automatic updates or periodically check for new security patches. You should also protect your both your router and your WiFi network with strong, unique names and passwords with no identifiable information.

10. Be careful when connecting to public Wi-Fi networks

If you’ve updated your router and set a strong WPA2 password, you can be confident that your home Wi-Fi network is pretty secure. Some public Wi-Fi networks are also secure, but a large number are not. Attackers can use the latter to snoop on your web traffic and use that information for any number of unsavory things, ranging from account stealing to identity theft.

But that doesn’t mean you should never use a public Wi-Fi network. Connect through a VPN where possible and avoid Wi-Fi networks with suspicious names (for example, something like REALFreeAirportWIFI probably isn’t legitimate). If you’re not sure, check with a nearby member of staff, or simply wait and connect somewhere else.

💡 Work tip

Think about segmentation when using apps like Slack

More companies are experimenting with messaging and collaborating apps, including Slack, Microsoft Teams, Discord, and Google Hangouts. They’re incredibly powerful but need to be used responsibly. Stop and think before inviting someone into a new chat room, group, or channel. Do they really need access to a management-level discussion? And should that access be revoked after a period of time?

It’s important to use groups and rooms, each with their own privacy settings, to keep information on a need-to-know basis. Otherwise, it’s more likely that sensitive information will leak or be accidentally shared with someone outside of your organization.

11. Switch to an end-to-end encrypted messaging app

End-to-end encryption ensures that no one can read your messages. That includes the company who developed the app and any government who might be interested in reading your messages. It might seem like overkill – especially if you think that you have nothing to hide – but it’s important to protect your privacy and that of the people you talk to.

Many cybersecurity experts recommend Signal, which is powered by the open-source Signal Protocol and offers end-to-end encryption by default. Other options include:

12. Ensure strangers can’t join your video calls

You don’t want a random person sneaking into your family quiz night or your company’s quarterly review meeting. If you’re using a platform like Zoom, make sure the call is private and invite-only. And if you have a shareable link, be careful where you post it. Webcams can also be hacked, so ensure you’re following the right steps to protect yourself.

13. Take care with files stored in the cloud

Many people use cloud-based platforms like Google Docs and Microsoft Office Online at work, or to complete school assignments and passion projects at home. If you need to share a project with someone else, be mindful of the privacy and permission settings you’ve chosen. If the file is sensitive, make sure that only invited people – rather than anyone with the correct link – can open it.

14. Check and double-check your email before pressing send

Particularly the “To” field. You don’t want to misspell an email address and send important documents or details to a complete stranger. Additionally, double-check you’re sending the correct attachments, and consider whether certain information should be sent over email at all.

15. Watch out for phishing emails

Cybercriminals will often impersonate a reputable company or person – a tactic known as phishing – and urge you to click on a link that seems legitimate, but actually sends you to a malicious site designed to steal your credentials or personal information.

Keep your eyes peeled for phishing attempts. Check the sender’s email address (does it seem legitimate?) and whether you’ve received any messages from them before. Scan for typos and pay close attention to any language that suggests you need to take quick, drastic action. If anything seems amiss, reach out to the supposed sender another way to check if the email was authentic.

Want to learn even more? We have free, downloadable guides, reports, and white papers that will help you stay secure both at home and at work.