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.

North Korean Cyber Terrorism: You’re Unprepared

It was revealed yesterday, in an announcement from the FBI, that North Korea was responsible for the recent cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

The attack resulted in the public release of thousands of confidential (and embarrassing) email messages and documents involving Sony, its executives, popular celebrities, and many of the entertainment company’s business partners—among other misappropriations of intellectual property. This included various Sony films now freely available on pirate sites. According to Patrick Mahaffey, CEO of software consulting firm Room 5, the Sony hack “may have ushered in a new era of state sponsored terrorism against civilian targets.”

the_interview for linkedinThese acts have also caused the controversial cancellation of the release of Sony’s movie The Interview, the comedy drama that was the motivation for North Korea’s actions. In the movie, the characters portrayed by Seth Rogen and James Franco are enlisted by the American government to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. (Spoiler alert: At the end of the film, the two American spies complete their mission; there’s a viral video excerpt trending on social media if you’re curious.)

North Korea’s actions weren’t financially motivated, but rather purely political in nature. However, they were financially impacting. Kim Jung-un’s third world, impoverished totalitarian regime just cost an American subsidiary of a Japanese company $200-300 million in lost revenue—not to mention a severely tarnished reputation. To put this in perspective, Sony Pictures Entertainment, based in Culver City, California, reported $8 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2014.

On December 15, CNNMoney reported that parent company Sony’s stock had fallen 10 percent due to the incident. Then, on December 17, the FBI announced that it considered the hacking incident a national security threat. On December 19, the event elicited public statements from President Barack Obama, who said that Sony Pictures “made a mistake” in cancelling the release of the film and that the United States would respond to the attack “in a place and manner and time that we choose.”

According to Reuters: “‘North Korea’s ultimate goal in cyber strategy is to be able to attack national infrastructure of South Korea and the United States,’ said Kim Heung-kwang, a defector from the North who was a computer science professor and says he maintains links with the community in his home country.”

The general tone among Americans has been that Sony (and, by extension, Hollywood) spinelessly caved to the influence of a rogue dictator. Echoing the President’s comments, social media has been abuzz with anti-Sony sentiment, and even calls for boycotts.

I would argue that North Korea’s actions amount to a terrorist act on the part of a communist totalitarian nation, in the form of a cyber attack that, akin to an act of war, brought Japanese Sony, American-based Sony Pictures Entertainment, and American partners like Snapchat to their knees. I would also argue that this event can be—in the long run—good for us. Here’s why.

It’s easy to become too internally focused when you’re in one of the most technologically, culturally, and economically advanced nations in the world—and a shining example of democracy and progress, despite all of our internal bickering and ideological and religious contention.

the_interview_3_for_linkedinFortunately, we have organizations like the FBI, CIA, and the military’s various internal counter cyber-terrorism groups. Before you laugh and begin schooling me on how none of these organizations can be trusted (and bring up torture and waterboarding), remember “same team” (and 9/11, if you have a short memory).

This isn’t the time to be pointing out how the family dog crapped on the rug a few times. Rather, we should be thankful that Rover keeps the house safe from intruders and kills pesky rodents before they begin living in the garage or digging into that 50-lb bag of bird seed. It’s our bird seed, dammit, and Rover—rug pooping and all—helps protect it from thieves.

North Korea’s recent acts of cyber terrorism are a wake-up call not only to large corporations like Sony, but also to middle class Americans. Although I’m certainly not an expert on this topic, I don’t think it was a wake-up call to our government’s security agencies or the military. I believe they’re in the loop on this one.

Kim Jong-un for linkedinWe middle class consumers, however, are sloppy with our data and online accounts. Our passwords suck, most of us never backup our data, and asking us about our firewall is like inquiring about the pH balance of our lawn; we simply don’t know. And, all too often, we don’t give a damn. Again, we’re too busy dealing with social media, work headaches, and our kids to bother with the likes of password strength and data backups. As Americans, we’re pinnacle procrastinators. Watching The Voice or True Detectives is more important to us than personal data security. We prove it every day.

The revelation of North Korea’s cyber attack on Sony Pictures proves that we’re much more vulnerable than we think. If a black hat hacker anywhere, foreign or domestic, wants to steal your identity, copy or corrupt your data, or blackmail or embarrass you, even a moderately talented cyber thief can do so with relative ease. The reason it hasn’t happened to you is because you haven’t been targeted. At least, not that you’re aware.

According to Daniel Solove, a research professor of law at George Washington University Law School, “All of our personal data is at significant risk. At home or at work, your personal data is at risk. Whether in the cloud, or on your computer, or in an email, your data is at risk. The internet wasn’t built for security; it is a very risky zone, like wandering a minefield.”

Computer and networking technology, along with the common skills of hackers, have evolved to the point that, regardless of motive, these cyber bad guys can swoop in, steal or corrupt your data, and leave almost no trace. You may have been hacked and have no idea. The IT departments of major retailers like Target, Home Depot, and Neiman Marcus have been hacked and suffered the theft of point-of-sale data for tens of millions of customers. And, in some cases, they barely learned that it happened. If $100 million IT departments are vulnerable, what do you think can happen to you and me?

the_interview_2_for_linkedinThe reason most of us haven’t had our data or personal home networks compromised is simply because we’re not big targets—not because our data or networks are secure. If a frustrated, psychotic co-worker, spurned lover, mean ex-husband, angry neighbor, or pissed-off friend really focused on messing with your data, they could do so with relative ease. It just might involve hiring a savvy teenage nerd to make it happen. Don’t assume, because a person doesn’t possess computer skills, that they can’t be responsible for a data attack on you and your family.

Statistics from a variety of sources indicate that the majority of Americans never (as in never) backup their data. Surveys and metrics also indicate that our passwords—even for things like bank and investment accounts—are pathetically weak. Do you have any “password1234” passwords in your collection? How about a derivation of your name (or your pet’s name)? Do you use the same password, or a slight variation, on all of your accounts? I know; it makes them easier to remember. It also makes you extremely vulnerable to hacking.

There’s plenty of books and resources available to help you improve your data security. I won’t push my book, because the point is simply to get you to improve your personal data security, not necessarily buy something from me. But do something.

james franco for blogCyber terrorism and hacking activities, from governments, large corporations, and individuals, are only going to increase. We’re all susceptible, from Sony Pictures to your next door neighbor. However, there are many things you can do to help prevent digital disaster that results in identity theft, public embarrassment, and financial loss.

Learn about what you can do. Make a plan. Execute it. Maintain your efforts. Be diligent.

Take it seriously.

Did you, or one of your friends, ever run a car out of gas? Wasn’t there a feeling of incredible stupidity and regret? Wasn’t there a realization that a brief stop at a local gas station could have been made oh-so-easily, preventing the embarrassment and expense of your negligence and oversight?

Well, get ready. Because the Sony Pictures hack by North Korea is only the beginning. Organizations and individuals that aren’t prepared will, sooner or later, suffer.

Try not to be one of them.

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Curt Robbins


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

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