The Way We Work
February 22, 2011 by Julia Camenisch

An engineering student recently discovered how a hacker can destroy much more than data. The student's email account was compromised, giving the intruder access to personal information and passwords. But that‘s not all. The hacker also began sending emails in the student's name that portrayed him in a negative light and hurt his professional reputation.

Think it couldn't happen to you? Think again. Those of us who have the freedom to set our own hours and be our own boss can easily forget that all those perks also have a giant drawback: we're responsible for everything--including data security. With no IT department for backup, things can get pretty ugly when your computer's security is breached.

To help you avoid getting hacked, here's a checklist of four ways to beef up your protection:

1.   Install a Guard. If you heed none of the other advice in this post, at least listen to this one: Install antivirus software and a firewall. It's one of your first lines of defense against unsavory intrusion. The presence of malware continues to grow; I've run into it on supposedly reputable sites. On one occasion, a program downloaded without my knowledge and began wreaking havoc. A huge headache (as well as productivity loss) could have been avoided if I'd simply had working and updated AV software.

Choose a program that provides real-time monitoring of your system, such as Microsoft Security Essentials or Avast.  Another important safety measure is your firewall. A firewall blocks access by online intruders, including hackers and worms/viruses that are looking for an open computer. Windows XP and Vista both come with decent firewall software, so make sure it's enabled. If you want something stronger, check out Outpost Firewall Pro or  Jetico Personal Firewall.  Just make sure to only install one AV program and one firewall. This is an area where safety doesn't lie in numbers!

2.   Secure Your Wireless. Admit it. You know your neighbors use your unsecured wireless network occasionally.  But while they’re just friendly intruders, other uninvited guests might not be so harmless. With a bit of knowledge, a hacker can hijack an unsecured wireless connection and either dig deep into the host computer's contents or use it to download illegal software, music, porn, etc. Don't leave the door open for that kind of behavior! Instead, set up a strong password for your wireless router (don't use the default one), enable WEP encryption and for an extra measure of protection, employ MAC filtering so that only authorized users can log on to your wireless network. For an in-depth discussion of good wireless security, read Brian Posey's excellent series of articles on the subject.

computer security three3.   Beware the "Public." See that friendly looking guy a few tables down from you at the coffee shop? He might be stealing your Facebook and LinkedIn credentials right under your nose. The public networks at many coffee shops and restaurants can be a perfect entry point for data thieves, which isn't a big deal if you're just reading articles. But if you're logging into your email or oDesk account, you might want to take a few precautions. First, use HTTPS whenever possible in order to protect your password. Google Chrome provides the KBB SSL Enforcer add-on while Firefox has an extension you can install, HTTPS Everywhere.  Second, don't enter credit card information while on a public network. Third, be paranoid about over-the-shoulder gawkers. There are actually people that will try to watch as you type your username/password combos.

4.   Watch the Mobile. Believe it or not, your smartphone is increasingly becoming a top target for hackers and data thieves. According to Cisco's 2010 annual security report, cybercrooks are refocusing their efforts on mobile devices, especially those using iOS or Android. Keep yourself safer by answering yes to the following questions:

  • computer security oneDo you have a password setup on the phone, just in case you leave your Blackberry in a taxi?
  • Do you avoid accessing unsavory or risky websites from your phone?
  • Do you download only apps that are absolutely, without question trustworthy?
  • Do you have antivirus/malware software on it?

There's many more steps you could and should take to secure your smartphone or tablet. Read more about smartphone security at this post from tomsguide.com.

You may not have an IT department to help you with data security, but that doesn't mean you need to be a sitting duck. It's extra effort and time to take the above steps of action, but trust me on this one: one hacked account and you'll know how worth it that extra time would have been.

Have you ever learned about the need to secure your network the hard way? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.


Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.