How to Protect Personal Data on Computer Networks

Defeat hackers at work, at home, and when traveling

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Unfortunately, stories of people having their data stolen over computer networks abound. Hackers can get ahold of your personal photos in the cloud, steal credit card numbers from online transactions, or guess passwords to your financial accounts. These criminals can be crafty, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself. Here are some ideas for how to safeguard your digital information wherever you are.

The instructions in this article pertain generally to keeping data safe on computer networks. Check with your internet service provider (ISP), business technical consultant, and companies you do business with online for specific safety tips.

Protect Data at Home

Passwords are essential for keeping your home network safe. If coming up with secure passwords seems like a lot of work, just think how you would feel if a stranger gained access to personal documents stored on a cloud server, read all your email, or used any of this information to access your financial accounts, or even open new ones in your name. That last one is called identity theft, and it can take a lot of time and money to resolve. The effort you spend coming up with secure passwords is nothing in comparison.

Make sure you choose strong passwords for:

If your home network uses any Wi-Fi connections, be sure to protect them with WPA or better security options. Criminals and even neighbors can easily hook into a wireless network if you leave it unprotected. Also, check your wireless router periodically for any suspicious connection activity.

Protect Data at Work

Your business could have the best-trained security guards, the most trustworthy employees, and strongest locks on the server rooms, but still, fail at protecting company data.

Just as you see the names of other people’s routers when you go online at home, your company's network name can show up to others who get close enough to reach it. Wi-Fi signals that bleed through walls can be picked up 100 feet or more outdoors with some basic equipment. Are any adjoining buildings open to the public or unoccupied? These are great locations for data thieves to set up shop.

Run your Wi-Fi with strong security options like WPA2 if your network handles private business information such as product specs, financial transactions, and employee social security numbers. Setting up Wi-Fi security doesn’t take long, and it scares off wannabe hackers who lack advanced skills.

Additionally, teach employees to be on the lookout for anyone trying to steal your data.

Protect Data While Traveling

Travelers are extra susceptible to having their personal data stolen because they're often distracted by unfamiliar surroundings. To avoid theft, your primary focus should be maintaining the physical safety of your mobile devices:

  • To avoid tempting thieves, minimize the time your phone is out in open view.
  • Before typing in passwords, look around for people who could be watching.
  • When staying at hotels or when driving, keep your belongings in a safe or otherwise secured.
  • Consider purchasing a purse or carryall with travel-specific safety features.

Beware of public Wi-Fi hotspots. Some may appear legitimate but are actually operated by criminals with the goal of fooling unsuspecting people into connecting and then stealing the data they transmit. Always ask for the correct spelling of the hotspot at that location, and don't perform any sensitive transactions (such as banking) while logged in. Also, consider subscribing to an online Virtual Private Network (VPN) service, which garbles network traffic in ways that prevent all but the most determined attackers from reading it.