The Future is Now: How to Protect Your Digital Devices

Bayshore | | Technology

Man reading laptop on couch


October is Cyber Security Awareness Month, and this year’s focus is devices – everything from phones and laptops to “smart home” technology. For many of us, these things have become constant companions. We use them for communication, web browsing, navigation, streaming, shopping, banking, work, fitness, health… the list goes on. We depend on our devices. They also depend on us. Digital threats are always lurking. Read on to see how you can protect your devices (and yourself) from harm.

Digital nation

Canadians love their devices, and we spend a lot of time online. These recent findings from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) may surprise you:

  • Almost 90% of Canadians own a smartphone, and 85% own a computer.
  • Three-quarters of us are online at least three to four hours daily.
  • Two-thirds of us spend at least an hour a day streaming videos or audio online.
  • Almost half of us admit to using our phones in the washroom.

Canadians are also big fans of smart home technology, also called home automation or the Internet of Things. Bluetooth speakers are the most popular smart devices, followed by voice-activated assistants, thermostats, home security systems and plugs. You can also outfit your home with smart light bulbs, door locks, TVs, appliances, and home heating and cooling systems – all connected to your home network along with other wireless devices you might have (printers, gaming consoles, etc.).

Fight back against cyber-attacks

Our digital devices offer conveniences our ancestors only dreamed of, but they’re also potential targets for criminals. According to CIRA, nearly a third of Canadians fell victim to a cyber-attack last year. Awareness is your best defense – here’s what you need to know:

  • Spam: Spam isn’t just junk mail. These unsolicited messages are often designed to “harvest” your email address, steal information, transmit data or install software without your knowledge. Don’t open or reply to emails from unfamiliar or suspicious senders.
  • Phishing: Phishing messages mimic, or spoof, legitimate senders (such as banks, credit card companies, government agencies, co-workers or friends) to trick you into disclosing confidential information (such as your social insurance number or credit card number). Phishing emails, texts and phone calls can be highly convincing or aggressive, threatening recipients with fines or arrests. “Spear phishing” is tailored to individuals, making it even harder to tell if messages are legitimate.
  • Spoofed websites: Scammers create fake websites to imitate those of banks, government agencies and other organizations. If in doubt, type the organization’s website address into a browser yourself or do a web search.
  • Malware: Malware, or malicious software, includes viruses, spyware, worms and more. Once it’s on your device, it could alter or erase your data, steal information, send emails, take over your device, give access to criminals or display alarming messages (scareware). To avoid malware, don’t click on links unless you’re sure they’re trustworthy, and don’t open suspicious attachments.
  • Ransomware: This type of malware seizes control of your device or locks you out of certain files until you pay a ransom. To infect your device, scammers try to trick you into clicking links or downloading files. Ransomware also spreads via email attachments, instant messages and websites. If your device gets infected, don’t pay – chances are, the scammers have no intention of restoring your access. Take the device offline to avoid infecting other devices, then consult a computer technician.

If you suspect or fall victim to a cyber-attack, report it (see “Additional resources,” below). Doing so helps authorities track and prevent these crimes.

Improve your cyber-security

Passwords: Set a unique, complex password (at least eight characters, with a mix of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols) or passphrase (random combination of four or more words) for every account and device. (Keep track with a password manager like 1Password or LastPass.) Never tell anyone your passwords. If you think a password has been compromised, change it.

Multi-factor authentication: This protects your devices and accounts by adding another layer of verification – like fingerprint scanning, a security question or a code sent to your phone – when you log in. Take advantage of this feature whenever you’re given the option.

Privacy settings: Customize the privacy and security settings on your social media platforms, web browsers and other accounts, and review them a few times a year.

Software and operating system updates: These updates fix security issues and add new features. Install updates when you’re prompted to, or enable automatic updates.

Security software: Anti-virus and anti-spyware software guards against viruses, malware and other threats. It’s not just for computers – you can also install it on smartphones and tablets. Run it weekly and keep it updated.

Default settings: Wireless routers come with default names and password. If you don’t change them, strangers could access your Wi-Fi. (While you’re at it, change the encryption settings to either WPA2-PSK or WPA2-Personal – if you don’t see those options, you need a newer router.) For added security, create a separate network for guests and smart tech (TVs, appliances, etc.). Change default settings on your smart home technology, too, and turn off or disconnect features and devices when not in use.

Virtual private network (VPN): This is a trusted, secure server that masks your IP address (a number assigned to each device) and can make surfing the web more secure and private. It can prevent others from snooping when you access the internet or your company network from an unsecured network or public Wi-Fi.

Data backups: Back up your data a few times a week (daily is even better), either online (“in the cloud”) or on a portable hard drive or USB stick. That way, if you suffer a malware or ransomware attack, you won’t lose your files, photos, etc.

Other good tips: Shut down online accounts you no longer use; when selling or disposing of a device, wipe your data from the hard drive (check with the manufacturer or a computer technician for how to do a thorough job – not all the steps are obvious); before you click a button or link, hover over it with your mouse (or, on a touchscreen, do a long press) to check that the domain name is correct; and, when shopping online or submitting sensitive information to a website, check that the site is secure (the address begins with https:// or there is a lock symbol beside it).

Additional resources

These government websites help Canadians learn about cyber-threats.

Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre: Read about scams and fraud, what to do if you’re a victim and how to report an incident. You can also file a report by calling 1-888-495-8501. This reader-friendly site shares helpful tips on securing devices, accounts and connections. Assess your cyber-safety with the Get Cyber Safe Checkup.

Canadian Centre for Cyber Security: Learn more about cyber threats, and read safety tips for online shopping and working remotely.

Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada: Learn about your privacy rights, and find tips on protecting information when using online services, mobile devices and wearable technology.

Read more posts in our special series, The Future is Now.