The Student’s Guide to Staying Safe Online

The Internet is an integral part of student life. It is how most students study, communicate and research everyday. Though the web often makes student life more efficient, those digital footprints may put personal information at risk if the right precautions are not taken.

The University of Georgia in Athens, Ga. recently reported that personnel records for more than 8,500 current and former student and faculty were hacked in what officials call “a criminal act of computer trespass.” This has happened in academia around the world, and researchers warn that students are often vulnerable targets.

“Universities are, by their nature, open, trusting environments. Nobody thinks that they will be subject to an attack, and that isn’t just isolated to students,” said Alan Woodward, a cyber security specialist and visiting professor at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, in an interview with U.S. News. “Many academics fall for scams as well.”

Busy students often leave computer security at the bottom of their to-do list, but keeping your personal information safe online is surprisingly simple. Follow just a few basic guidelines to keep your information safe and secure while using the web, even if you live in a remote location such as Alaska.

Risky Behaviors

Students often overshare personal information through social media sites. Hackers can use that to impersonate banks and other legitimate institutions to gain login information and personal details. Limit using specifics on any social media sites. Try not to ever use your full address, social security number or date of birth.

Malware is the cause of many software and virus headaches. Malware can spread rapidly and infect your computer through document files, email attachments and unprotected file shares. This is often the problem with Torrent sites that allow you to download music, movies, and television shows as those files are infected with malware.

Many sites require you to have Adobe Flash downloaded to view the content of a website. Flash uses cookies, which are small bits of data that are saved to track information. Flash can also be an easy malware target. To protect against Flash-based attacks, make sure to update your Flash software and always be wary of the site you are about to enter.

Always keep your operating system up-to-date. Hackers are constantly updating their processes to find weaknesses in computer systems. Most software vendors including Mac and Microsoft regularly offer updates to clear up security issues and improve software.

Phishing scams are common on campus and in university email inboxes. Be careful when submitting any personal information online, especially for a job. If possible, only submit your social security number once you’ve been hired and personally hand in your application to a hiring manager.

Tools to Keep Safe
There are many simple and low-cost options to secure your information online. Always remember to update the security protection on your computers and use firewalls that alert you of software updates.

Firewalls are often free, and can help protect your computer by blocking potentially hostile connection attempts. Apple users can download the Mac firewall, and Microsoft has a Windows options at their safety and security website.

Protect your computer from malware by downloading an anti-virus software. Check with your university to see if they provide access to a free program or download one such as Norton by Symantec. Antivirus software allows you to scan your computer to find viruses and malware already on your computer, and help you prevent future attacks.

It can be annoying to have a different password for every site, but a series of strong passwords may be your best line of defense. Here is guide to creating smart passwords. Remember to never use personal information such as a social security number in your password, and try not to store any passwords on your computer or a phone that can go missing.

For many students the web is a necessary tool for storing information and documents. Consider using a cloud computing tool, which invisibly backs up your files and folders. There will always be an added risk when you store information virtually, but taking the necessary precautions will help. There are several popular options listed here, and this guide will help you do the right research to make sure your cloud server will keep your information safe.

Additional Resources
The Federal Trade Commission has a great website with tools and resources to guard your identity, computer and kids online.

The American Bar Association provides a guide to smarter shopping online, and ways to protect your information as a consumer.

The PC World magazine published a comprehensive guide to the web’s 17 most dangerous places for identify theft and scams online.

The Louisiana Broadband Initiative, operated by the Louisiana state government, published a series of guides on keeping your information safe online.