5 cheap(ish) things to beef up your digital security

Source: The New York Times

By Thorin Klosowski

Everything you do online is tracked, logged and studied by someone, either through advertising or more malicious means. Being watched is an unpleasant feeling; it’s gotten to the point where even my “I have nothing to hide” friends are growing uncomfortable with the whole thing. As the privacy and security editor for Wirecutter, a New York Times company that reviews and recommends products, I’ve tested a variety of fixes over the years, and the following items are what I recommend to anyone who wants to beef up his or her digital security.

The only way to be truly safe from the prying eyes of social networks and advertisers is to leave the internet for good, but because most people won’t or can’t go to that extreme, these tools will help prevent the worst problems and keep most of your private information as safe as possible from hacks or security negligence.

In collaboration with Wirecutter, here are five cheap(ish) things to help keep your internet presence a little more private.

A password manager

Most people can’t remember the login details for the dozens of online services they use, so many people end up using the same password — or some variation of one — everywhere. If you are one of those people, this means that if just one site on which you use your password gets hacked, someone could gain access to all your accounts.

A password manager helps solve this problem. It generates and stores different passwords for every site, so you don’t have to remember them all. You need to remember only one password: the one to get into your password manager. A good password manager also alerts you when a website is hacked so you can change your password on that site.

Wirecutter recommends 1Password. Once you get the hang of how it works, 1Password is easy to use and faster than typing in your password everywhere. 1Password costs $36 a year, but if you want a free password manager and don’t mind dealing with some technical quirks, Wirecutter likes LastPass Free.

A virtual private network service

As Wirecutter has reported, a VPN is not a tool for anonymity, but it can offer an assist when it comes to privacy. A VPN helps to keep most of your browsing private from your internet service provider; it reduces some online tracking; and it secures your connections when you use public Wi-Fi.

Wirecutter recommends the TunnelBear VPN service because its security is trustworthy and transparent, it is affordable and it has an easy-to-understand privacy policy.

A two-factor authentication app
As the name suggests, two-factor authentication enables a feature for online accounts in which you’re required to verify yourself in two ways: with a password and with a second “factor.” The easiest, cheapest second factor is an application on your phone that generates one-time-use codes that you plug in after logging in to an account with your password.

Authy is the simplest to use of these applications. It’s free, and it works as the second factor of authentication for the most common online services, including Gmail, Instagram and Facebook. Once you enable two-factor authentication on each individual account, you then need both your password and your phone to log in. Authy can also securely back up your information, so if you lose or replace your phone you won’t be locked out of your accounts.

Two-factor authentication doesn’t guarantee security, and it is vulnerable to hacking attacks like phishing attempts that spoof a login page, so you still need to be careful. Text-message verification is particularly bad, so you should stick to an app when possible. An even more secure option is a physical key like those from Yubico, though they can be a pain to use with some devices.

A webcam cover

For the past few years, the idea of covering your laptop’s webcam has been reserved for the paranoid or the important. The fear driving such an action is simple: As Wired has reported, a hacker, creep or domestic abuser could theoretically take control of your webcam.

But back in July, a much more mundane situation arose with the video-chat software Zoom. A security researcher revealed a vulnerability through which any website could open a video-enabled call on a Mac with Zoom installed. Zoom’s explanation for this? The company wanted to make it easier on the customer by requiring fewer clicks to start a call. This sort of security negligence is a likely more common occurrence than a directed hack of your webcam.

Wirecutter hasn’t tested webcam covers, but I did order a few of the most popular options from Amazon, and my favorite is the Imluckies Webcam Cover, which is thin enough that it doesn’t prevent a laptop lid from closing and doesn’t slide open by accident. If you have a desktop computer, you can also invest in a dedicated webcam, such as the Logitech C920S (the new version of a previous Wirecutter pick), that has a privacy shutter built in.

A paper shredder

A paper shredder to improve your digital privacy might not make sense at first, but a good shredder protects against old-school identity theft, which can still affect your digital life. If someone goes through your trash and pulls out a few bills, they could find your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number and more.

Wirecutter recommends the AmazonBasics 15-Sheet Cross-Cut Shredder for most people, though serious privacy mavens should step up to the AmazonBasics 12-Sheet High-Security Micro-Cut Shredder, which runs a little slower but produces confetti half the size of a cross-cut shredder’s pieces.

P.S. The expert bargain hunters at Wirecutter, The New York Times’s product review site, are scouring thousands of discounts to find the best deals on products that are actually worth it to upgrade your life. Subscribe to the daily Deals newsletter here.