Unfortunately for the rest of us, there has never been a better time to be a cybercriminal. Computer security must become part of our daily routines. Over the last 30 years, society has shifted to digital solutions, and we now run much of our lives through websites and online applications. The Covid-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated this process
Without the possibility of face-to-face interactions, companies and consumers had to quickly transition and learn how to operate online. Unfortunately, this increased the opportunity for would-be hackers looking to exploit users' sensitive information.
Many of these newer online users tend to be less tech-savvy, previously only utilising in-person or postal services. Unfortunately, newer users are ideal targets for cybercriminals, often making mistakes online that compromise computer security and privacy.
UK cybercrime statistics
The rapid digital acceleration over recent years has brought with it a surge in cybercrime. Data from 2021 shows the UK has the highest cybercrime rate in the world, with 4,783 victims per million people. That represents almost a 0.5% chance of becoming a victim. Or put another way, nearly 1 in 200 people in the UK were victims of cybercrime in 2021.
This is the second year in a row that the UK is top in cybercrime density (victims per million people), and the 2021 figure is a whopping 40% larger than 2020. The UK rate is also almost three times greater than the US in second place, with 1,494 victims per million people.
Given the growing likelihood of online crimes, computer security is more important now than ever before. However, the overwhelming majority of cybercriminals are looking for low-hanging fruit. They're targeting people with poor PC security habits to maximise their impact while minimising their efforts.
Therefore, following a relatively short list of computer security and privacy tips can go a very long way toward protecting yourself online.
Today's top computer security threats
Before we go into tips for PC security, let's first look at the types of threats we are all exposed to by just being online.
Malware refers to malicious software designed to infiltrate computers or networks of computers, causing harm and exploiting them for the hacker's gain. Malware is a catch-all term that covers many types of cyber attacks, including:
The malware allows unauthorised users to access and extract private data to be leveraged for profit. This data could be financial information, healthcare records, or login information (i.e., passwords/usernames) to access other more valuable accounts, such as an employer's network.
Malware can infiltrate the security of computers using multiple delivery mechanisms, the most common of which is phishing.
Phishing emails are something most of us will have experienced. They appear to be from a trusted sender (e.g., company, friend, colleague, government authority, etc.) and direct the recipient to click a link or download an attachment.
However, these emails are fake, sent by bad actors to trick victims into downloading malware onto their computers or offering up their login information. This could be an attached file or a link to a fake or compromised website where any sensitive information entered is retrieved by the cybercriminal.
Generally, phishing is part of a wider attack. It acts as the delivery mechanism, getting around computer security systems the next stage of the attack occurs.
Social engineering attacks
While the most common, phishing is one of many when it comes to social engineering attacks. Social engineering refers to cyberattacks that use manipulation and deception instead of technical computing knowledge or so-called "hacking."
Generally, it is much easier to fool people into disclosing their personal information than it is to break down the security of computers. Other than phishing, social engineering attacks include:
Spear phishing – A more advanced form of phishing where the attacker takes greater care to produce more authentic-looking correspondence. Think of phishing as spamming low-effort emails to reach as many people as possible. Spear phishing is a more targeted strategy, selecting similar individuals and producing tailored messages to increase the chances of them being deceived.
Scareware – Using fear to trick people into acting quickly and downloading new software (that is actually malware) on their computer. Scareware typically uses emails or online pop-ups to inform a user their computer is infected with malware, and that they need to install software to remove it. In fact, the original message is fake, and the software they install is the actual malware.
Baiting – Setting up traps that exploit users' curiosity or their eye for value. This could be online advertising for a great new deal or a real-world approach. Bad actors have started leaving physical media, such as USB sticks, in popular locations. People finding these USB sticks lying around end up plugging them into their computers to see what is on them. Perhaps to find information that can return it to the original owner. However, the USB stick contains malware that infiltrates their computer once plugged in.
Other computer security and privacy threats to be aware of include:
Ransomware – Once a computer system is infiltrated, the attacker encrypts critical files, preventing access and holding them ransom until a fee is paid. While ransomware more commonly goes after businesses, it can also target computers and laptops for personal use.
Third-party exposure – Any legitimate software used on your computer may have potential vulnerabilities that sophisticated cybercriminals can exploit.
IoT – Connecting new devices to the internet for remote use has led to many new vulnerabilities for bad actors to target.
Stalkerware – Monitoring software used to spy on or stalk someone. Stalkerware is often implemented by partners, friends, or family who are close to the victim and can access their personal devices to install discrete stalkerware.
So how can you go about maintaining security systems for laptops and computers? Here are five computer security and privacy tips to help you keep your data safe.
1. Use a password manager
Once hackers access your login information for a specific online account, the next logical step is to try them on other websites. While frustrating, someone having access to your social media account doesn't automatically mean they can start extracting value from you.
But if those same login details give them access to your banking accounts or e-commerce websites (e.g., Amazon, etc.), they can quickly access funds or spend your money.
The best approach to password computer security and privacy is to have separate logins for each account. However, this is often impractical given how many we all have nowadays. So the real solution is to use a password manager.
Password managers apps allow you to automatically create unique, strong passwords for every account you have. Typically, users add a plugin for their browser or an app on their phone, allowing the password manager to provide the login information from a stored list quickly.
The only password you need to remember is a single, strong password that unlocks the password manager.
2. Two-factor authentication
Another great way to secure your online accounts is using two-factor authentication (2-FA). While this can slow you down a bit when logging in online, it lets you know when anyone is trying to gain access to an online account.
Also, 2-FA adds another layer of authentication to your accounts beyond just a password. This could be some form of biometrics (e.g., fingerprint, facial recognition) or a notification/code sent to your phone when using your laptop or PC.
Especially for your most important accounts (e.g., banking, Google, Apple, Dropbox, etc.), 2-FA is critical to ensuring only you get access.
3. Security software
While good practices and user behaviour helps, ultimately, you will also need software on your side to protect your PC security. Many security systems for computers are available that do a great job of keeping bad actors out.
These packages include antivirus software that protects a computer from internal attacks and firewalls that scan online traffic as you browse the web.
4. Keep all software up-to-date
One of the most important factors to consider for computer security and privacy is keeping all software up to date. Hackers are constantly testing software to see if they are exploitable, finding tiny mistakes in the code that allow them to circumvent protections or trick the software into offering up the information it shouldn't.
When a vulnerability is found, a manufacturer can update the software and protect their customers. Therefore, software updates can be the quick fix needed to protect your PC security before online attackers can make the most of a new vulnerability.
Finally, VPNs are a great way of protecting your devices when connecting to public WiFi networks. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and while it can slow down your internet connection, it also encrypts your internet traffic and hides your IP address by routing it through a separate server.
When you sit down at a coffee shop or log into public transport WiFi, you have no idea how secure that connection truly is. Unfortunately, cybercriminals often exploit WiFi networks to infiltrate unsuspecting users. VPNs are critical to prevent this and maintain your computer security and privacy.
With growing cybercrime rates, the security of computers is more important now than ever before. While the threat is genuine, by following good PC security practices, you can ensure the security systems for your computer are strong enough to keep yourself protected.
About the Author: Arthur Smalley is a science and technology writer based in the UK.
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