Good security advice can be hard to find. We've assembled a dozen simple but essential tips - a 12-step security program - to keep your PC, smartphone, gadgets and identity safe. The steps are practical and fairly easy to perform, so you can strengthen your security without losing your mind in the process.
3. Encrypt your hard drives
Hard drives and USB flash drives are treasure troves of personal data. They're also among the most common sources of data leaks. If you lose a flash drive, external hard drive, or laptop containing sensitive personal information, you will be at risk. Fortunately, encrypting your hard drive can give your data an extra layer of protection beyond setting up a system password. Encryption will conceal your drive's data and make accessing the files almost impossible for anyone who does not know your encryption password.
The Ultimate and Business editions of Windows 7 and Vista come with BitLocker, a tool that lets you encrypt your entire hard drive. If you don't have the Ultimate or Business version, another alternative is to use TrueCrypt, a free, open-source tool that can encrypt your entire disk, a portion of a disk, or an external drive. For its part, Mac OS X includes FileVault, a tool for encrypting your Mac's home folder; Lion, the next major Mac OS X release on the horizon, will be able to encrypt a whole hard drive.
Another option is to buy external hard drives and flash drives equipped with encryption tools. Some of these drives have built-in fingerprint readers for additional security.
4. Keep your software up-to-date
One of the simplest but most important security precautions you should take is to keep your PC's software up to date. I'm not talking exclusively about Windows here: Adobe, Apple, Mozilla and other software makers periodically release fixes for various bugs and security flaws. Cybercriminals commonly exploit known vulnerabilities, and Adobe Reader is a constant target of such assaults.
Not infrequently, the latest version of a popular program introduces entirely new security features. For example, Adobe Reader X, the newest version of the company's PDF reader, uses something called Protected Mode to shut down malware attacks. If you still use an earlier version of Adobe Reader, you aren't benefiting from Reader X's security enhancements.
Most major commercial software packages come with some sort of automatic updating feature that will inform you when a new update is available. Don't ignore these messages; install updates as soon as you can when you're prompted to do so. It's a little bit of a hassle, but it can prevent major headaches later on.
5. Upgrade to the latest antivirus software
If you're running antivirus software from two or three years ago, you should upgrade to the most recent version, even if you still receive up-to-date malware signature files for the older edition. The underlying technology for antivirus software has improved significantly in recent years.
To detect threats, antivirus products today don't rely solely on the traditional signature files (regularly updated files that identify the latest malware). They also use heuristic techniques to detect and block infections that no one has seen yet. Given how frequently new viruses crop up in the wild, the ability to protect against unknown malware is critical.
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