How to Protect Your Digital Privacy

As more and more of life is played out online, there's more and more risk of identity theft to users. But there are steps you can take to help secure your and your family's digital identity, finances and privacy.

If you have a wireless network in your home you need to password protect it and take a few other steps to keep your personal data locked down. In an effort to keep this process simple, I am outlining the basics in the hopes that people take action to protect their data.

The specifics of turning the router password on are best learned in the manual or through an online guide for your specific router. But we'll outline the concept, and once you understand the big picture, it should be easier to deal with the specifics for your router.

The problem

Wireless Internet networks broadcast information and can give strangers access to the data on your computers. If you don't enable encryption on your Wi-fi router you are vulnerable.

What's a wi-fi router?

If you can use a laptop to wirelessly go online in your home, then you have a wireless router or wi-fi router. Internet comes into your home through a cable modem or a DSL modem. The wireless router is usually a separate device that connects to the modem and broadcasts its Internet signal to connect laptops, phones or other wi-fi enabled devices. Sometimes your DSL or cable modem has a built-in router to broadcast a wi-fi signal; it may an all-in-one device.

How do I lock out the bad guys but maintain my wireless access?

All wireless routers have encryption that scrambles data as it's being transmitted in the air. It can only be deciphered if the wireless device (e.g. the laptop) and the wireless router have the same password. WEP encryption is the best choice for home users. It comes in most routers and to enable it you go to the router's settings, turn WEP encryption on and then tell your laptop what the password is.

Where are the settings for my router?

The wireless router is configured through your main computer. You probably had to go through this configuration set-up when you initially installed the router. In the manual for the wireless router you will see either an address you enter into your browser (for example 192.168.1.1) or there may use the software you installed during installation to set the router up.

I can access the wireless router settings, now what?

Look for a tab or option that says "security" or "password." Turn on WEP encryption at the very least and preferably use WPA as it is tougher to crack. Warning: this password is IMPORTANT, don't lose it. It's not ideal but you could put a piece of scotch tape on the bottom of your router and write the password on it. Anyone in your home will be able to access your wi-fi network, but we are trying to protect you from external snoopers. This scotch tape solution is real-world advice, not perfect-world advice.

Now my Laptop doesn't have Internet access...

Your laptop doesn't know the wireless router's password. You have to configure the laptop's wireless settings by going to the network sharing center or network preferences in your computer. When you see the wireless network click on "properties" or "advanced" and in the password field enter the password you just set up for your wireless router. It can be more complicated than this, but this is the basic idea. Use the manual for your wireless router or ask a geeky friend for help, but it's well worth doing.

So now my other laptop doesn't have Internet access.

All wireless devices (even phones that access wi-fi, gaming devices, streaming media devices) will need the router's password entered into the wireless network settings.

Am I safe now?

This is a good start. You should also be running an antivirus program like Norton or AVG to make sure you don't download malicious code (viruses) that broadcast your data out onto the Internet; much further than onto the street or into a neighbor's house. I welcome comments below of better practices and more rigorous security measures. But this is the baseline set of practices to secure your home wireless network.

VIDEO: Google Goofs: How to Protect Your Privacy
Google Admits Wi-Fi Data Collection

Additional Digital Security Resources

Here are some additional online resources you can use to keep your digital identity safe.

Your Digital Privacy Questions Answered
Privacy and Internet safety lawyer Parry Aftab answered "GMA" viewers' questions about digital privacy and why your personal correspondence may not remain private.

Cyber Threats in 2010
A computer security firm releases threat predictions for 2010.

Protect Your Business From Cybercrime
Tips from USA Today on how to protect your business and use a employ a "triple threat" security package.

Myth vs. Fact About Digital Privacy
Myths and facts about your online security including email, GPS and social media.

Tips to Stay Safe on Social Networking Sites
Posting information on social networking sites has lead to real-life security breaches.

Stay Vigilant to Steer Clear of Cybercrooks
Tips from USA Today on how to avoid the dangers of social media.

Teens and Social Media
Tips to help you control your teenager's use of social networking sites.

How Wired Gadgets Encroach on Privacy
Losing digital privacy in the era of high tech devices.

Perils in the Privacy Cloud
A column that argues privacy law is not developing as quickly as technology.


Additional Digital Resources

OnGuard Online
Tips from the federal government and the technology industry for guarding against fraud and protecting your computer and your identity.

PC World Magazine
A comprehensive resource from PC World magazine for how you can to avoid e-mail viruses, preventing spying and stop attempts to access your personal information.

United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team
Comprehensive cyber security tips written for the average computer users. The site covers privacy, threats, software, browsing and e-mail.

Wired Safety
Provides comprehensive information and education about computer safety, cyberbullying and cyberabuse, online shopping, e-mail scams and fraud and building safer websites.

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