As college students all across the country head back to school, most of them will probably be worrying about their classes, grade point average and making new friends. They probably won’t be thinking about how to keep their personal data safe online, but our security experts say that they should. Almost all colleges and universities now offer free Wi-Fi for students and their many smart devices. Higher education networks – the “Wild West” of Wi-Fi – present an easy target for hackers because of their lax security precautions. Open dormitory networks leave little barrier for spreading malware infections. Meanwhile, frugal students attempting to save money by downloading media from back-alley sources are prime targets for attack.
Most college network admins are too busy trying to keep networks functioning in the face of students’ ravenous demands for more data and faster download speeds to focus on security. Tens of thousands of students, professors and administrators depend on college networks to allow them learn and do their jobs (not to mention access creature comforts like Facebook, Netflix and League of Legends to name a few). In many cases security just isn’t as high of a priority as performance is.
So what can students do to protect themselves and their data in the midst of less-than-ironclad public networks? Here are several basic steps that won’t interfere with network access and can be done on a college budget.
Turn Off Sharing
If your computer’s settings are configured to share your music library, images or other files, not only can others on the college network access that data, but anyone with malicious intent now has an easy attack vector to steal your files. You can find adjust these settings to prevent others from accessing your personal data in the Homegroup section of the Control Panel on a Windows machine or in System Preferences under the Sharing tab on a Mac.
Use Strong P@$$w0rd5
If your password is “password,” you’re in for a rough time. All of your passwords should have at least 12 characters with a mix of letters, numbers and symbols. Use different passwords for each of your respective accounts. If you’re worried about remembering so many different codes, vault services like LastPass can help make the process much easier.
Many websites now use this protocol (look for the green “https” at the beginning of a website’s URL) to encrypt the data that they send and receive. Avoid entering sensitive information such as credit card numbers on sites without HTTPS. You can use browser plugins such as HTTPS Everywhere to secure most of your traffic with HTTPS.
Use Two-Factor Authentication
This method requires two pieces of information to log into an account. Usually, a website will require you to enter your password and also deliver a string of numbers or letters to your phone to be used as a second login token. This protects your account if a hacker gets your password somehow (like one of those password dump hacks we’re always hearing about on the news). Gmail, Steam, and many other services offer two-factor authentication, so turn it on for any account with sensitive information.
Be Smart About Your Downloads
Not only is piracy illegal, the sources of pirated material are often swarming with Trojans disguised as desirable files. This extends to legitimate downloads and legally shared applications as well. Only download applications from trusted sources and never launch something you received unsolicited.