By Muriana McPherson
WE HAVE all, at some point in our lives, heard that maintaining good personal hygiene — such as washing our hands before eating, brushing our teeth after every meal, and taking daily baths — prevents illness and makes us socially acceptable. One can therefore conclude that practising good personal hygiene contributes to us all enjoying a good, healthy life.
In recent years, the word “hygiene” has come to be associated with another facet of our lives -– what we now call “our online lives”. We are often cautioned about practising good “cyber hygiene.” One may ask what exactly is cyber hygiene; how does cyber hygiene relate to our online lives; and why is it important to practise good cyber hygiene? In this regard, cyber hygiene has been described as the steps we can take to improve our cyber security and better protect ourselves online.
Many of us use computers, tablets and smartphones for a variety of activities, such as browsing the Internet; sending and reading emails; shopping and making payments; accessing our bank accounts, and transferring funds; socialising, chatting with associates, friends and families on Skype and Facebook; posting pictures and videos on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook; playing games; downloading apps, and so on. All of the activities mentioned above involve going “online.” This is obviously a big part of the lives of some of us. While these activities can contribute to us enjoying a ‘good life’, with modern conveniences from the comfort of our homes, offices or while on the go, they still pose varying levels of risks to us all. It is like using a vehicle: it has the benefit of allowing us to conveniently travel to various places via road networks; however, using the vehicle carelessly could be fatal.
In a previous article from “Connecting Digitally for the Good Life” series, the writer posited that an important part of being a digitally responsible citizen is to be safe online. So how can we protect ourselves while enjoying our online activities? A key part of protecting ourselves online is paying close attention to our usernames and passwords. A password is one of the most sensitive pieces of information we hold since, without our permission, it can be used to access our online life: email, Facebook, online bank account, and so on.
One way to stay safe is to protect your password. Given certain situations, you might ask what is all this fuss about sharing passwords anyway. The answers received may be that: ‘I trust the person; she is my confidential secretary, or my spouse, or a very close friend.’
Some people are very casual about sharing passwords. In most cases, they don’t see any risk or harm associated with their actions. These very persons would, no doubt, be furious if someone were to access their online bank account and withdraw savings without their permission; or if someone were to access their email account and send rude or incriminating messages to their contacts. When a relationship ends bitterly, there is always the potential that one angry ex could lock the other person out of their own account by changing the password. All of these create opportunities for identity theft or impersonation.
According to one survey, 64% of young adults share their passwords, whereas 70% of middle-aged adults share theirs; and, on average, 67% of seniors share their passwords.
Keep in mind that many of us would not consider sharing out toothbrushes with others! In fact, we are often reminded that our toothbrush should be changed regularly and should not be shared. Our passwords are like our toothbrushes. Change them regularly and do not share them with others. Passwords are meant to keep others out. Also, like locks on our doors, the stronger passwords are, the harder they are to break. Strong passwords are usually eight or more characters long, and include combinations of symbols, numbers, and capital and common letters. A good strategy for setting strong passwords that are easy to remember and difficult for others to guess is to base your password on a simple phrase that is easy to remember. For example, consider the sentence: “Smith walked 3 times faster than Brown and won the prize”. A strong password based on this sentence is the mnemonic Sw3xftB&wtp derived by taking the initial letter of each word and substituting the word “and” with the ampersand.
It is recommended that we change our passwords at least every three months. This reduces the risk of someone eventually discovering our passwords.
In addition to not sharing passwords, it is important to have different passwords for each online account. If one password is compromised, the malicious user should not be able to access your other online accounts.
Protecting our passwords is not the only way to stay safe online. In future articles, we will discuss additional ways of practising good cyber hygiene. This increases our chances of enjoying the ‘good life’ that comes from connecting digitally.
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[box type=”shadow” align=”aligncenter” ]Muriana McPherson is the holder of a MSc. in Computer Science, and is a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP). She is on secondment to the eGovernment Agency, and has cybersecurity responsibilities for the public sector. For additional information or assistance on practising proper cyber hygiene, please send questions, comments or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org[/box]