As an individual, you probably have good hygiene habits, which were drilled into you when you were young. For example, you were taught to wash your hands, take a shower, brush your teeth, and so on.
You somehow acquired the stated habits, and they will stick with you for the rest of your life. Now, can you apply hygiene habits to computer and internet usage?
The training and acts that constitute cyber hygiene are quite similar to those that define daily personal hygiene. In this guide, we intend to describe the best cyber hygiene practices while walking you through the key steps to developing them.
What is cyber hygiene?
The top internet security bodies and cybersecurity organizations define cyber hygiene as the means or practices employed to protect computers and maintain IT systems.
For users, by cyber hygiene, we are referring to good behavior people exhibit on their computers when they engage in activities such as emailing, browsing websites and pages, and so on. For organizations, by cyber hygiene, we are referring to good behavior to which staff must conform to avoid cyberattacks and breaches and mitigate risks.
Good personal hygiene habits involve using products that suit your hygiene needs, performing hygiene tasks correctly, and establishing and maintaining a routine. Therefore, cyber hygiene is all about you training yourself to think and act proactively regards cybersecurity. This way, you get to resist cyber threats, mitigate serious risks, and avoid security issues.
Why is cyber hygiene important?
According to crime statistics, the vast majority of cyberattacks (over 95%) are down to human errors. People make mistakes when they use weak passwords for sites and applications, click on malicious links, open bad attachments, fill in their data on fake forms or fraudulent pages, and so on.
A malicious program does not find its way into a computer on its own; someone typically provides malware with a pathway to get in (inadvertently or not). Similarly, threat actors rarely ever do attack systems head-on; hackers typically seek out weak points and exploit them to their advantage.
Essentially, you, as an individual, constitute the greatest defense against cyberthreats. And, at the same time, you can also be the weakest link. The same thing holds for your computer.
Therefore, by practicing good cyber hygiene habits, you position yourself as a very strong, if not the strongest, defense against all forms of threats.
What are the benefits of practicing good cyber hygiene?
By improving your cyber hygiene and developing good cyber habits, you get to significantly reduce the risk of you or your computer falling victim to attacks. This way, you get to avoid data loss, financial loss, and other bad events associated with cyberattacks and data breaches.
Cyber hygiene for everyone
People still do not take cybersecurity as seriously as they should, but perhaps things are moving in the right direction since you are reading this article to learn what you must do. Ideally, you should establish solid cyber hygiene practices, which should, over time, become as routine as you brushing your teeth.
Get the right tools for cyber hygiene and use them:
For example, to brush your teeth, you use a toothbrush. You probably brush your teeth at least once a day, and this activity is part of your routine. Well, the same thing goes for cyber hygiene. You need to identify the right tool and use it – and use it regularly.
For example, if you are going to store sensitive personal information, then you will do well to get an external drive, configure a strong encryption system on it, and save the data there securely. You surely would not want to expose sensitive details on the internet for everyone to see.
In general, to practice good cyber hygiene, you will need a good antivirus or antimalware program, firewall for your network, solid password manager to manage and remember complex passwords, and other programs and setups for different purposes – depending on what you do on your computer.
Learn to do the right things:
Now that you know that you need the right tools, such as a protection utility, for the job, how do you go about using them? For example, if you decide that you no longer need files that you saved on a drive, how should you go about removing the files?
In terms of serious cyber hygiene practices, just right-clicking on unwanted files and selecting Delete is not enough. And even wiping the deleted files from the recycle bin will not cut it. If you want to permanently get rid of files containing sensitive data, you will need to go a step further and use a data-wiping program to clean things up.
The same thing goes for your use of passwords. You have to rethink things. You are no longer allowed to act irresponsibly. You cannot afford to use simple passwords or use the same passwords on multiple sites. Now, you must use only complex, unique passwords for everything. Yes, this is where a password manager comes in handy.
Make cyber hygiene practices part of your routine:
A practice only becomes a habit if you keep to it. If you want to maintain good cyber hygiene, then you must learn to always execute the necessary operations or perform the necessary tasks. And if you want anything to stick, you must do it routinely and repeat things over and over again.
You can start by setting an alarm or creating a recurring reminder for a series of tasks. By tasks, we are referring to the following:
- getting your antivirus to scan your system for threats;
- checking for, downloading, and installing updates for programs and the operating system running on your machine; and
- regularly wiping your hard drive.
In any case, once you repeat the necessary tasks enough times for a certain routine to stick – which means you develop the needed habits – cyber hygiene will become second nature to you. Moreover, you will find it easier to maintain good cyber hygiene based on already existing habits.
Key steps and tips for good cyber hygiene for individuals
We will describe the essential steps and tips you, as a person, need to follow to stay safe and secure both offline and online.
Install a good antivirus or anti-malware program:
An antivirus or anti-malware program is an application designed to find threats (such as viruses, Trojans, spyware, and other malicious items) and eliminate them. Such an app is a vital component of every protection setup.
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- Scheduling and running automatic scans.
- Scanning specific locations, drivers, folders, or files.
- Removing malicious items and programs.
- Monitoring the system’s health and computer’s defense setup.
Use a firewall:
A firewall is a setup or program that screens incoming and outcoming connections and then allows or blocks them based on a given set of rules. A firewall is an important line of defense in your network security because it can stop authorized actors from using your connection to access websites, servers, and so on.
You can use the firewall built into Windows, but you will have to alter its settings to make it function better. Alternatively, you can use the firewall function provided by your antivirus or anti-malware application.
Update all utilities and your OS:
Here, we advise you to update all your applications – such as web browsers, games, social networking apps, and others – to ensure they always use the latest code that is free from security holes or vulnerabilities. Developers are constantly improving their programs by introducing new features or enhancing existing functions and adding patches to eliminate bugs and flaws.
Hackers, when they attack through regular apps, typically exploit vulnerabilities, so if you do your best to keep those holes closed by always updating your programs, the chances of your computer falling victim to an attack become low. Some developers might not even inform users that they patched a critical flaw in an update, so you will do well to get and install every update and not just the ones you deem important.
The same recommendations and guidelines apply to the operating system (Windows, for example) that powers your machine. If you use Windows 10, then your computer is probably configured to fetch and install updates automatically – if you did not tinker with things.
Anyway, in Windows, the automatic update setup (fine-tuned with the Active hours function, for instance) is likely to assist you in keeping your system updated – if you let things be. Otherwise – if you already did away with the automatic update setup – you must always remember to download and install Windows updates manually, but this strategy requires a decent level of commitment.
Use complex, unique passwords everywhere:
All your passwords for sites, applications, and services must be complex and unique.
By complex, we mean your passwords must be far too difficult for any human to guess or figure out. Ideally, they should contain at least 12 characters and consist of numbers, symbols, and both uppercase and lowercase letters. And by unique, we mean they must differ from one another. You should not use the same password on more than one site, app, or service. Ideally, you should get a good password manager to help you with things.
Use two-factor authentication:
With two-factor authentication, you get an additional layer of protection for your account or profile on a site, app, or service. If you configure two-factor authentication, you will always have to supply a unique code (alongside your password and username, of course) to access your profile and data. Well, the same thing goes for potential hackers who may try to crack into your account or profile.
Basically, even if criminals somehow manage to get hold of your complex, unique password, the doors will remain shut for them because they cannot get the unique code needed to log in. This unique authentication code is what defines two-factor authentication. It is usually sent as an SMS to your smartphone.
If you have devices or systems that hold sensitive data, such as laptops, smartphones, cloud storage, and removable drives, you will do well to configure encryption for them. Or you may want to encrypt your data before you save it to them.
In some devices and systems, encryption is standard; some applications use end-to-end encryption; some services encrypt data on your machine before they upload it to the cloud. In general, you may want to make a note of all encryption functions (where they exist and when they work) to take advantage of them.
If you do not want sensitive data to fall into the wrong hands, then encryption is a must for literally everything.
Create backups regularly:
If you want to secure your data, then you have to create backups for it. Create copies of everything that matters. We know we are recommending tips to help you avoid attacks or data loss, but preparing (constantly) for such events is one of the best practices you can ever adopt.
If hackers somehow manage to gain access to your computer or if your PC gets infected by ransomware, then the backups you created will come in handy. And in fact, if you back up your data regularly (like we propose), then you will be able to get things up and running quickly even after a data loss event.
- Protect your router to secure your wireless network.
- Clear your data the correct way. Clean your hard drive.
- Use VPNs.
Key steps and tips for good cyber hygiene for organizations
We will describe the most effective strategies used to mitigate risks and optimize response to threats in firms.
Identify your organization’s priorities and build on them:
First, we advise that you identify your company’s most important assets and activities. If you find this task too difficult, then you may need to reorganize your organization’s services or products. In any case, once you figure out the most critical things, you have to build your cybersecurity risk management strategy around them and implement the needed protection policies.
Carefully examine and study the risks your organization faces:
To mitigate potential problems, you need to obtain a decent understanding of the risks to your firm’s operations, assets, or even important people. Once you figure out the risks, you will be able to implement response strategies in terms of mitigation, acceptance, and monitoring. This way, you also get to make changes that significantly reduce the chances of a bad event occurring and lessen the impact of such incidents.
Depending on what services your firm provides or what products it sells, you may have to protect customer information, financial information, and/or IP (intellectual property) – because this data is typically the most sensitive and valuable. If your customers use login information, for example, then you have a responsibility to protect their passwords as best you can.
Develop an incident response plan and stick to it:
Incident response refers to the plan or process through which organizations handle cyberattacks or data breaches. It is defined in terms of the methods or procedures firms use to manage the consequences of an “incident”. Incident response implies that organizations must prepare for, detect, contain, and recover from a cyberattack or data breach.
A good incident response plan typically contains procedures and methods for escalation, clearly states individual roles and responsibilities, and outlines coordination processes for handling disruptions. From a component perspective, a good incident response plan has technical, legal, and managerial constituents.
Unfortunately, comprehensive descriptions of incident response plans, processes, and methods are beyond the scope of our work in this guide.
Train/teach your staff important cybersecurity practices:
Ideally, to increase awareness, you should educate your staff – from regular employees to senior managers and partners – on the best cybersecurity practices. This way, you get to ensure that they develop adequate cybersecurity skills, which then translates into improvements in awareness. The effects of cyberattacks and data breaches are often exacerbated when employees are unaware and unprepared.
Whatever training scheme you choose should address the biggest threats or most common malicious actors. Well, in case you didn’t know, the vast majority of attacks or breaches start through phishing or involve a malicious program.
For example, if you teach all your employees to be careful when handling emails and avoid clicking on links or opening attachments in suspicious messages, then you get to shut things off for phishing – and this is significant.
Use best-practice network designs, schemes, and principles:
Your organization’s communication network is as important as it gets when it comes to defending against attacks and breaches, so it must get sufficient protection and monitoring. When you have to configure perimeter and network segments, we strongly advise that you select the best network designs, schemes, and principles while ensuring that the configuration across all devices is consistent.
At the network perimeter, you may also want to configure some form of filter for network traffic that allows you to limit the connections to what your organization needs. Furthermore, through this scheme, you get to monitor traffic for unusual, irregular, or malicious activities, which generally point to a breach, attack, or attempted breach/attack.
Use access control to minimize risks:
In cybersecurity, access control is the scheme that guarantees that users are who they claim to be and that they get appropriate, structured access to the relevant data. In IT circles, the principle of least privilege requires firms to give subjects (or employees) only the privileges they need to do their jobs.
In general, if you limit staff to as little sensitive information as possible while they remain capable of performing tasks, you get to significantly reduce the number of ways or events where attacks or breaches can come into play. If access to data gets so tight that most individuals in your organization do not have access to sensitive details, then attackers will get nothing from your employees’ computers – if their systems ever fall victim to an attack or breach.
When you work to create an access control system, you should consider the classification level of the information that exists in documents and data kept on servers. As a general rule, you have to store sensitive information in the most secure areas or protected systems and only grant access to it to individuals who need these details.
Monitor technology changes and react fast:
For one, you have to establish standard secure configurations for all the operating systems, programs, and hardware devices in your organization. Ideally, you should utilize change control and configuration management procedures for those items. And if necessary, while you monitor changes or in the light of certain events, you have to refresh and update stuff in the configurations based on threats, vulnerabilities, and attack vectors.
In simpler terms, we mean you have to regularly download and install updates for everything that matters. You cannot afford vulnerabilities or holes in your operating systems, programs, or hardware devices. The more you wait before applying patches, the more chances attackers get to attack your organization and threaten your operations.
- Implement controls for data protection and recovery.
- Monitor malware exposure.
- Develop and implement a cybersecurity framework.