The Olympics are over, but fear and concerns dealing with the hacking of personal devices, such as laptops, cell phones, and tablets, will likely never be. Millions have seen the recent report, by journalist Richard Engel and Trend Micro threat researcher Kyle Wilhoit, which shows a computer and smartphone being hacked seemingly just by being turned on in public Internet services in Russia. There have been many rebuttals to this news report, which show that the individuals may have willfully downloaded malicious applications and disabled any safeguards in place to prevent malicious attacks from reaching their devices. Despite this being the case, the general public is still shaken up about the safety of their information on connect devices.
So how can you take the steps necessary to avoid these hacking attempts on your devices? Actually, it’s relatively easy. Let’s break it down by popular devices:
Laptop and Desktop PCs
So you have a laptop and don’t want it to get hacked. Good news! Most computers these days come configured out of the box with security features enabled. However, it is always a good idea to check and make sure that they are still enabled. If you are using a windows machine (Vista, 7, 8, 8.1), follow these steps:
1. Search your computer for a setting called “Windows Firewall” and open up the Firewall
settings page. A firewall essentially acts as a barrier, only allowing trusted network traffic through to your computer, and blocking anything it deems malicious based on a predetermined set of rules. Find the setting called “Turn Windows Firewall on or off” and ensure that the firewall is on for both private and guest/public networks.
2. Search for “User Account Control” and open up the “Change user account control settings” menu. Ensure that the slider is set to the top. This will notify you of any program trying to execute changes on your computer and requires administrator approval to continue. This can be annoying sometimes, but it’s a small price to pay so you can examine exactly what is trying to install itself onto your computer.
3. Other than those two, general security tips apply. Make sure you have an antivirus software installed (Windows Defender, avast, malware bytes) and that its virus definitions are up to date. The setting to update this is generally easy to find. In addition, don’t click on anything suspicious you find while surfing the web, especially links with no context. No, you are not the millionth customer, you haven’t won an Ipad, and he’s not going to send you half of his inheritance. Use your common sense.
The steps for a Mac running OSX are generally the same. If somebody tells you that you’re totally safe because you own a Mac, they’re buying into an outdated myth (though, you are less likely to contract a virus on a Mac). Ensure your firewall is enabled, and use your common sense. Having a Mac may decrease the likelihood of getting a virus on your computer, but it WON’T protect any of your accounts (bank, email) from being compromised.
Smartphones and Tablets
Let’s be real. Smartphones and tablets have found their way into the hands of most people. This is great for the advancement of technology, but not so great for those who are less tech-savvy. The good news is, Android and iOS devices operate differently than personal computers, and it’s relatively simple to secure your smartphone. Let’s start with Android.
1. DON’T install sketchy applications. The Google Play app store isn’t perfect, and malicious applications sometimes make their way on there. Here’s how you can spot them:
a. Check the reviews. If it has less than 3 stars, don’t bother with it. It’s either malicious or it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to anyways. You’re better off steering clear. Also, many Internet “knights in shining armor” will comment on malicious applications and tell other users to steer clear. Always, always, always read the reviews.
b. Check the permissions before installing. Each application has a set of permissions that the user must agree to before installing. Sometimes these are hidden and have to be expanded by tapping on a drop down bar during the pre-install process. Does that food recipes app really need access to your contacts and call history? You be the judge. Again, check the reviews.
2. Applications outside of the Play store:
Listen, unless you know what you’re doing, don’t install any application (signified by the .apk file extension on Android) unless you’re technologically savvy enough to know what you’re installing. If you do know what you’re doing, make sure the unofficial application is from a publisher you trust and that you found it on a reputable site or developer forum (preferably with user feedback associated with it). If you’re not technologically inclined, you can block you phone from installing unofficial apps (commonly referred to as “sideloading”) altogether. Just navigate to SettingsSecurity and uncheck “Unknown sources.”
3. Like with PCs, use your common sense.
Good news for iOS users. Apple doesn’t allow their devices to sideload applications, and their app store is heavily monitored and screened for malicious programs. This doesn’t mean you can be totally relaxed. All of the other Android security tips still apply. Also, common sense. Starting to see a theme here?
I know it might seem like a lot to take in, but a lot of these are one time steps (and probably enabled by default on a lot of devices). For the 24th time, just use your common sense and you’ll greatly reduce the chances of you being caught up in one of these hacking attempts. Good luck, and happy computing!
Dominic Sellitto is a Masters degree student at the University at Buffalo on the Information Assurance track. He is also a passionate “first adopter” of any new technology he can get his hands on.