How to protect ourselves online

How to protect ourselves online
As the virtual world becomes more a part of daily life, the necessity of protecting ourselves online increases – Jason Osbourne

Recent news surrounding Facebook’s rebrand as ‘Meta’ has prompted many people to reflect on the increasing intrusion of the online and virtual into the offline and physical. A couple of years ago it was possible to draw a neat line between our online activities and the rest of our lives. Sometimes, the extent of my online interaction consisted of a video or two a week and a couple of emails, if even.

Now, however, many of us have jobs entirely dependent upon the internet and an online presence, and in some cases, our socialising is dependent upon these things, too. The nature of our lives is changing, for better or worse, and whereas once upon a time it was possible to ‘opt out’ by not availing of online services and insisting on offline options, that choice is being increasingly encroached upon.


This being the current lay of the land, it’s more important now than ever that safety and privacy online are taken seriously. The old-fashioned advice that “turning it all off” solves your online problems doesn’t really fly anymore – not when the virtual increasingly affects the physical. I’m thinking here of online banking; turning off your devices won’t help you if a nefarious agent gains access to your account through some means or other.

The descent into fully-fledged winter is in full swing now, and that’s sure to see an increase in time spent on the internet as the weather grows less hospitable. As such, it’s helpful to touch up on tips that will help to keep both us and our families safe online.

Privacy settings

At an absolute minimum, these days making use of privacy settings is a must. Once upon a time, there was an assumption that the sheer number of people online resulted in some sort of protection via anonymity, but recent waves of scams in which the fraudsters possess personal information show how important it is to make use of the privacy settings on offer.

We can control the information we put out there in a number of ways. Web browsers and mobile operating systems have settings available which allow you to protect your privacy online. Major social media websites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram also have privacy-enhancing settings available, although many people don’t avail of them.

This is sometimes because they just haven’t considered putting them on, but also because traditionally privacy settings haven’t been that easy to find on the websites themselves. However, turning on privacy and security settings has been streamlined on most social media websites, and is easily accessible through the settings menu. You can tailor to a precise degree how much or how little of yourself you share, and with whom.

You wouldn’t start freely sharing your personal information in a physical public forum, and neither should you do so online. It’s much better to tailor your audience to your preferences.

Browse safely

Just as you mightn’t walk through a dangerous neighbourhood, neither should you subject yourself to unnecessarily risky content online. This often comes in the form of scam emails, texts or messages from unknown senders, or from suspicious advertisements on websites. Flashy or base content is often used to catch the eye, and once clicked on can lead to dubious websites.

As hard as it is to believe, one click in the wrong place can be all it takes to infect your device with malware or expose your personal information and data. This is what happened to my poor, unassuming teenage self a number of years ago, when clicking on every link that took my fancy led to my computer contracting a virus. Fortunately, this was before my internet banking or social media days, so there wasn’t much of value for anyone to gain access to there!

Be careful of downloads

In a similar vein to browsing safely, be careful what you download and open on your computer, or any device. Cybercriminals and fraudsters often try to trick people into giving them access to their devices through seemingly important or necessary looking emails, texts or apps. Downloading or installing anything they contain can be another way into your personal data for someone with ill-intent.

Don’t download anything that looks suspicious or gives you pause, or that comes from a source that you can’t be sure of.

Choose strong passwords

We live in a world of passwords, with the number we need seeming to multiply year on year. I remember back when the only password I had was to get into my computer – only a few short years ago. Now passwords are required for all of our social media accounts, email, as well as our various online applications and services.

From speaking to people about this, it seems that despite the best advice, many of us continue to choose easy passwords (such as “password123”) or to use the same password for most, if not all, of our accounts. This is poor practice, as it makes it easier for fraudsters or hackers who gain access to our devices to make their way to the heart of our personal data.

A “strong” password is one that is complex and unique – likely to be a mix of letters, numbers and special characters, of 8-16 words long (or however many the service or device allows, as that varies). These passwords are much harder for criminals to bypass, and should keep your online activity yours’ alone.

It’s also a good idea, at least in my opinion, to write down the passwords and keep them in a safe location, whether that be in a book, hidden anonymously on a shelf, or wherever else you might hide them. As mentioned, passwords are multiplying, and it’s all too easy to lose track of them without a record.

Only buy from secure sites

We’ve done a previous column on staying safe while buying online, but the basics bear repeating. Any time you make a purchase online, you need to provide some form of payment, whether that be a credit card, bank information or a paypal account.

This is a vulnerable moment, as that’s exactly what cybercriminals are most keen to get their hands on. Only supply this information to sites that are secure and reputable, which should be easily discernible after some research.

You can identify secure sites by looking for a website address that starts with ‘https:’, the ‘S’ standing for ‘secure’, rather than simply ‘http:’. They may also be marked by a padlock icon next to the address bar.

Be careful what you post

This piece of advice moves from the technical to the pragmatic. Be very careful of what you, or your family posts. The internet retains things forever, so that even if you delete something on a social media site, there’s no way to guarantee it’s gone forever – there may be screenshots.

Internet conversation often lacks the nuance of regular, offline discourse, so making a risky comment online comes with double the risk it normally would. Don’t say or post anything you think might be unnecessarily bold, or that you’ll wish you could take back. It’s likely to hang around for longer than you intend.