The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Computer Users

The recent headline news of the industrial-grade hacking suffered by Sony Pictures Entertainment (currently being blamed on North Korea) has data security on the minds of consumers and corporate executives alike. Some experts theorize that a minimal amount of second-level security could have prevented the embarrassing and costly hack that has brought Sony to its knees (both in terms of reputation and money).

Hard drives crash, theft occurs, natural disasters destroy delicate hardware, viruses infect, and thousands of files are sometimes inadvertently wiped out with a single keystroke or tap of a touchscreen. In the digital domain, we seem to be our own worst enemy. Procrastination, sloppiness, ignorance, or just a lousy attitude toward disaster prevention often conspire to wipe out our most precious digital memories.

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The sad part of this equation is that it can all be prevented. Don’t blame the hard drive crash, because you should have had a backup. Don’t blame that flood or roof leak that damaged the spare bedroom where your computer was residing, because you should have had an offsite backup.

Don’t blame the fact that your data is scattered across several devices, because you should have centralized it. And don’t blame the hacker or the virus they gifted you, because you should have been running good, current anti-malware software.

And don’t ever blame the black hat hackers who guess your pathetically weak passwords and steal your identity or siphon your bank account, because you should have created strong passwords—and then changed them on a regular basis.

Yes, all of these very common, yet very painful, digital disasters can be avoided. The TME (time, money, effort) required to secure the digital side of your life isn’t trivial. However, it’s minor in comparison to the possible (and, over time, probable) consequences of mismanaging your valuable data.

Your precious photos, home videos, and school/work documents—and the delicate devices on which these ones and zeroes are captured, archived, viewed, and shared with others—can be secured more easily than you may think. And with a boatload less effort and trauma than if you suffer a digital disaster.

1) Centralize Your Data

Store your files on a single device. No, not your laptop. And no, not even your desktop. I highly recommend a dedicated network access storage device, also known as a NAS. They’re affordable ($100 to more than $1,000 if you want to get fancy), super easy to use, and make backups a snap.

Cost? A few bucks. Effort? Minimal. Simply unbox the NAS, plug it in, and all your wi-fi and Ethernet-connected devices should recognize it.

2) Backup Your Data

Backup software costs from free (build into Windows or Apple’s OS X desktop operating systems) to a few bucks (Second Copy is a great value at only $30). Remember the three golden rules of data backups: Backup on a regular basis (this depends on the rate at which you acquire new data or modify existing files), always make two backups, and always take one copy offsite. Offsite doesn’t mean your basement. Or your neighbor’s house. It also doesn’t mean the other side of the country. It means far enough away from your domicile (or office) that a flood, tornado, or hurricane won’t affect the offsite copy.

The majority of consumers never—as in never, ever—make a single backup of their data. Of those that do manage a backup now and again, they typically never make two and take one offsite. Aside from backing up in the first place, going offsite is the number one delinquency on the part of data owners and businesses alike.

3) Have a Good Firewall

Many devices on your network may provide a firewall. According to Wikipedia, a firewall is “a network security system that controls…incoming and outgoing network traffic based on an applied rule set. A firewall establishes a barrier between a trusted, secure internal network and another network (e.g., the Internet) that is assumed not to be secure and trusted.” Your internet router probably provides a firewall. Your computers may each provide individual firewalls. But don’t play a guessing game. Know which devices have active firewalls, their basic configuration, and learn if you can improve things by updating the rules by which your firewalls allow and deny incoming traffic.

4) Keep Anti-Virus Software Current

The “a virus ate my homework” horror stories have been pervasive enough for so many years that I perceive most people have anti-malware software installed on most of their computers. There’s no excuse for not having a current subscription going on all computers. Why all? Well, your computers are networked by this groovy wireless technology called wi-fi. A single unprotected PC in your home is a gateway for hackers to gain access to your network and all PCs on it.

And don’t give me the excuse that anti-virus software is too expensive. My favorite (and what I use on all of my Windows computers) is Webroot. I purchased a 3-PC, one-year license for $17 on Amazon. Data security doesn’t get any easier or cheaper than this.

5) Have Unique, Strong Passwords

There’s a reason I dedicated a full chapter to the topic of strong passwords in my book Understanding Personal Data Security. If the state of data backup in the United States sucks, then the quality of the average password is even worse. Consider this January 2014 blog post from Slate.com: “The good news is that ‘password’ is no longer the most-popular password on the Internet, according to the latest report from SplashData. The bad news is that it’s still the second-most common—and ‘123456’ is the first.”

Wow. We’re not doing a very good job of securing our online accounts, folks. In the effort of being terse (not my strong suit), let me sum it up, according to Stanford University’s Password Requirements Quick Guide: Longer passwords are better, but shorter passwords are permissible if they are complex. According to Stanford, this means:

  • 8-11 characters: requires mixed case letters, numbers, and symbols
  • 12-15 characters: requires mixed case letters and numbers
  • 16-19 characters: requires mixed case letters
  • 20+ characters: any characters you like

Those are the requirements. But unless you were one of those kids who was actually happy with a passing grade of a C-, Stanford recommends that passwords are a minimum of 16 characters. But how does one remember such a long password? Stanford recommends using passphrases, which are combinations of common words to create a truly unique and uncommon password. An example is “windowelephantpeachrocket.” This 25-character passphrase is considerably more difficult to crack than the most popular password, “123456,” which can be guessed in about one second by even a relatively inept hacker.

For more information (and a really cool infographic), see Stanford University’s Password Requirements Quick Guide.

6) Respect Your Hardware

Ever see people sitting on their bed with their laptop perched on a quilt or blanket? Completely blocking the air intakes, which typically reside on the bottom or sides of the unit? Overheating is one of the primary ways in which delicate electronics get flakey or die. Prevent overheating by positioning your laptop on a flat surface. For desktop units, ensure that intake ports remain unblocked. Airflow is key!

In fact, here’s a cool trick: Take your vacuum cleaner hose and routinely suck out the air intake and “exhaust” of your laptop and desktop computers (desktop units should actually be taken apart and more thoroughly sucked free of dust and pet hair, if possible). Dust and hair (from both humans and pets) forms a blanket on delicate silicon chips and circuits, insulating them and holding in their heat.

This simple trick can extend the life of your computers more than you’d imagine. Do it now!

7) Avoid Distractions

If you’re trying to get work done, avoid the distraction of too much multi-tasking by closing tabs in your browser or otherwise limiting the potential pestering of social media. That ding in Facebook, saying nothing more than one of your hundreds of friends has commented on a stranger’s post, is costing you productivity. For the duration of your work, seriously consider shutting down your email, Facebook, LinkedIn, Vine, Instagram, Ello, and however else you engage in social media. Your work, career, and boss will thank you.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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