It's now officially Spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and with spring and the longer days comes the inescapable urge to shake off the lethargy of winter and embrace the need to go through your stuff, throw a bunch of it out, and give the rest of it a shiny new luster.
And in our increasingly digital lives, more and more of our stuff exists as bits and bytes on our phones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers. With the trees now full of blossom and the air prickling with pollen, you may feel an urge to straighten out your digital mess too.
If you do, we’ve got your back, and we humbly suggest that when you’re done tagging your dog in every photo and getting your folder names just so, you turn your attention to your device security and give that a little dust off as well. After all, nothing makes a bigger mess of your digital life than malware rummaging through it.
1. Say “yes” to software updates
Patching (downloading software updates) is like fixing the broken locks on the front doors of your digital life—the updates contain code that fixes weaknesses that thieves could otherwise jimmy open with their digital crowbars.
Start your spring clean by downloading all the software updates you’ve been putting off. Especially the big ones.
And yes, you’ve heard this advice before (we hope). Maybe you’ve heard it a hundred times, and maybe you've heard it so often that you’re tired of hearing it and looking for some other advice. Well, fine, there’s some other advice below, but this is number one on our list for a reason, so please don’t skip it. This is the first and most important thing you can do to give your digital security a spring boost.
2. Say “no” to duplicate passwords
How many online accounts do you have? Twenty, thirty, one hundred? And how many different passwords do you have for all those accounts? If the answer to these two questions isn’t exactly the same number—meaning that you have as many different passwords as you have different accounts—then you have some cleaning up to do.
Criminal hackers love it when you use the same password for more than one account. Once they’ve done the hard work of cracking one of your passwords they aren’t going to waste it, they’re going to try it on a laundry list of other websites to see what else it can unlock for them. It’s like a twofer at the grocery store for them: Hack one account, get one free!
The way to stop this is to create a unique password for each of your accounts, no exceptions. If you’re up for a deep clean then get yourself a password manager to make the job of creating and storing all those passwords easy. It’s a little more effort up front, but well worth it.
3. Lose what you don’t use
We’re going to leave you to decide where you want to take this one and how far you want to go with it. We’ll just get you started with this simple line of thinking: From a security perspective, “more” is often worse. More apps mean more places a hacker might find a broken lock or an open window they can use to break into your device. The same thing goes for your online accounts—each one is a potential way into your digital life (particularly the accounts you haven’t used for a while, aren’t paying much attention to, or didn’t bother to lock down very well).
It’s amazing how many rarely-if-ever-used apps we accumulate on our devices, and how many accounts we open and then abandon online.
So why not lose some things? Ditch some apps you don’t need, clear out your unused browser add-ons, and delete some accounts you don’t use. The more you lose, the better.
4. Get on top of your email
Criminals use email to spread malware, fakes, and scams, so it is worth paying some attention to. Getting your unread email count to zero is immensely satisfying, and if you do it the right way it can give your security a spring in its step too.
Start by unsubscribing from all the mailing lists and newsletters you never read. You want the email that arrives in your inbox to be full of things that actually interest you, so it’s easier for you (and your spam filter) to spot anything that is slightly off. It’s just like step #3—lose what you don’t use.
Now go through your email and mark the things that look like scams, spam, malware, or junk as “Junk” or “Spam.” Every time you do that instead of just deleting shady emails you are actually training your email’s spam filter to work more effectively (if you want to know why read our article on Bayesian Filtering). To work correctly your spam filter needs a few thousand up-to-date examples of both “good” emails and “bad” emails, so you want your inbox to be full of good things you care about, and your spam folder to be full of bad things that are malicious or spammy.
5. Run a malware scan
Spring cleaning is about the satisfaction of a job well done, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing your environment isn’t harboring any nasties. To get that same sense of inner calm from your computer, put down the bleach and pick up a malware scanner.
A malware scanner is the quintessential deep clean for your device. It will pick over your files and apps, one by one, and run through them with a fine-tooth comb, weeding out any malware that’s lurking in there undetected.