Tech Resolutions #5: why I’m finally getting smart about internet privacy

Andrew Williams reveals what's prompted him to finally get clued up about web snoopers...

Just a few years ago, you could get by online with four simple rules. 

Firstly, don’t use your dog’s name for all your account passwords. Similarly, don’t give your Wi-Fi password to your weird neighbour just because their internet isn’t set up yet. Don’t visit (too many) dodgy websites. If you have to, make sure you have a virus scanner.

And, whatever you do, don’t click any pop-ups that claim they’ll a) clean your system or b) let you work from home and earn 5,000 an hour.

Despite being quite tech-savvy, I’ve still been winging it with these basics. I’m lazy, like many. But I’ve also realised waiting for something to go wrong is like waiting to be robbed before you buy home insurance. Internet privacy and security matter.


A close shave

What made me think twice was a close call that almost derailed something I’ve been working on all year.

A few months ago I managed to scrape together the money to put down a deposit on my first home. Just two days after I paid my life savings into this money pit, Tesco Bank was hacked and all transfers were put on lockdown. If I’d waited just two days, I’d have been screwed. Cue homelessness and enough stress to age you ten years in 24 hours.

These breaches happen all the time. They’re unavoidable, but being lax about security and privacy open you up to a personal attack that sees life savings evaporate into the cloud rather than just being inaccessible for a couple of days. So, yes, maybe it’s time to get a bit more serious about security and privacy.

First step: password managers

Step one: fixing my passwords. I can barely remember what I had for dinner last night, so going the traditional route and actually remembering more and more complex passwords is a bust. Thankfully, I can cheat.

There are absolutely loads of apps that not only remember your passwords, but can input them as needed and create super-secure new ones for you. The app I’ve been trying recently is Dashlane.

It’s so proactive I ended up swatting it away a few times when trying to quickly order some late-night Christmas presents online. I’m getting there, but I’m not the finished article yet.

These apps are a bit like bank vaults, hiding your passwords behind a wall of 256-bit “military grade” encryption. What this means is the key used to unlock your data is one of 2 to the power of 256 keys. That’s so many it’d take a computer longer than the age of the universe to crack it.

It feels slightly sad to wave goodbye to those old “first pet and then the number 1” passwords, but anything that can be tracked back to you is a no-no. The old advice that passwords should be something you can easily remember doesn’t stack up anymore. Use one of these password managers and you only need to remember one master password.

I still can’t remember the Wi-Fi key of the Virgin Media router I use daily to test all the gadgets I review at Stuff, so this is going to have to be one of 2017’s brain food exercises.

What the cripes is a VPN?

Step two: tackling new-age nasties. I love free Wi-Fi. Whenever I can I’ll head out to a pub or coffee shop just to find somewhere to work other than the office. Sure, the chair’s nicer there, but it gets boring after a while.

But free Wi-Fi isn’t really safe. Anyone on the same network can use nasty software to leech the info you type in whenever you don’t use an “https” web page, and even those secure pages can be compromised.

The more I read into this stuff, the more I feel like I’m slowly fashioning a tinfoil hat out of pure Googling. But when the solution is so easy, it’s worth looking into. I’m talking about a VPN.

What this does is encrypt all your internet use, even with unsecured pages. You’re much safer regardless of where you’re browsing, and as a side benefit the government can’t track you. And, err, it looks they're really getting into that sort of stuff.

I’ve been trying out NordVPN. It costs about $11.95 (around 800) a month and is so deliciously simple, it’s actually fun.

Install the NordVPN app on your laptop, desktop or phone and you see a cartoony map of the world, packed with all the servers it operates. One click/tap and your internet browsing starts getting routed through Iceland. Or Italy. Or India.

If you have an advanced router you can even set it up so everything in your house gets the VPN treatment. But as I’ve only just got internet installed I’ll leave that for later. Internet may be considered a human right by the UN, but that doesn’t stop you going without it for a month when you move house.