Are you as safe as you can be in terms of cyber security? (Photo: Rawpixel.com, StockSnap)

If the 2016 election and all the recent data breaches of major corporations have taught us one thing, it should be this: We all need to get better at dealing with cybersecurity threats. There are lots of reasons why we keep running into these issues. Maybe the biggest is that stealing our personal data has become a lucrative business for hackers and foreign governments alike. Those issues will have to be dealt with by corporations and Congress, but there are ways you can improve your personal security from online threats in the meantime.

Online activity and mental health
Whether we want to admit it, our online activity is inexorably linked to our mental well-being. Overusing social media can result in depression. Online addiction can literally rewire our brain itself. Now, online activity doesn’t always harm us. In fact, these activities can be used to help those suffering from PTSD, and it might even help us prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia in the future.

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However, we have to live in the here and now, don’t we? Losing our online data can cause a lot of stress. After all, everything about us—Social Security number, credit history, work history and much more—can be found online. If that information gets into the wrong hands, it could take a lot of time and energy to fix the mess that’s made. At the very least, this is going to cause you a lot of undue stress, which can lead to a domino effect of negative health effects.

In the case of protecting yourself online, the best way to look at it is as you would any other type of preventive health care options. You can’t undo a hack or data breach, but you can do plenty of things beforehand to keep your personal devices safe from outside threats.

More threats than you might think
What got me started on this piece was an article I happened to come across that said 83 percent of physicians have experienced a cyber attack. If you think about it, it’s not all that surprising that physicians, hospitals and other health care facilities are so often targeted. These groups have to keep extremely detailed records of us. Without them, doctors and nurses can’t effectively do their jobs. Hackers know this, so attacks against health care facilities have become incredibly common.

According to Accenture and the American Medical Association, who surveyed 1,300 physicians across the U.S., the findings suggest “a strong need for improved cybersecurity education for physicians.”

Their work noted that 74 percent of physicians said that cyber attacks had interrupted their daily work, and 29 percent said it took a full day to recover from a cyber attack. A whopping 53 percent said they’re concerned about their patients’ safety as a result of cybersecurity attacks.

What about our personal security?
Although we can’t control how seriously our physician takes protecting our cybersecurity, we can choose our physicians, can’t we? Asking your doctor about his or her practice’s firewall or online security practices might not come naturally, but if it’s something you’re worried about, ask them anyway. If they brush it off or don’t even seem to know what you’re talking about, there’s nothing saying you can’t find a new doctor.

It may seem like a strange idea to switch doctors over something unrelated to their actual medical work, but this stuff really does matter. Once the outside world knows your Social Security number, you’re never going to get that back, and it is extremely rare for the government to agree to give you a new SSN.

It seems to me that we’ve spent so long worrying about what the federal government will do with our personal data that we’ve forgotten all the other very real threats out there. Corporations often don’t prioritize our safety, and there will always be bad apples out there who want to sell your data to the highest bidder.

What you can do to protect your personal devices
There are a plethora of articles out there that can help you navigate steps to take for your personal security. I’ll link this article and this other article, which are two of the best I came across. The second article there notes that online fraud/cyber scams have increased 270 percent in just the past two years, according to the FBI. The amazing part about that is these attacks weren’t exactly uncommon two years ago, so such an increase means the attacks are happening with an incredibly high frequency.

So what should you do? The absolute No. 1 priority should always be to update your devices as soon as any updates are available. The researchers used the example of Windows XP, which no longer receives updates from Microsoft. Without these updates, security threats open up that make it much easier for hackers to breach systems still operating on XP.

It’s not much different, however, if you’re running on Windows 10 but have never done any updates. Although it may be tedious to update, the updates aren’t meaningless. They do help you stay protected.

Make sure you change your passwords often and don’t use anything generic. Use numbers, letters and symbols, and try not using any words you’d find in the dictionary. Use different passwords on different sites, and you and your significant other should never use the same password, either.

Do not click on any unknown links you come across. It’s best to avoid public Wi-Fi connections because you never know who might be accessing the same connection. Although the right anti-virus and additional security software will help you stay safe online, common sense is a much simpler and effective security defense. If you’re in doubt about a notification that pops up, block it. You can undo blocks later, but you can’t undo a data breach.

All this may seem like a lot, but you better get used to it. These threats aren’t going away, so the sooner you learn how to stay safe, the less you’ll endure in the long run.

Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He’s on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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