Defending yourself against cyberattacks starts with understanding the risks associated with cyber activity, what some of the basic cybersecurity terms mean, and what you can do to protect yourself.
What is cybersecurity?
Cybersecurity is the art of protecting networks, devices, and data from unauthorized access or criminal use and the practice of ensuring confidentiality, integrity, and availability of information. It seems that everything relies on computers and the internet now—communication (e.g., email, smartphones, tablets), entertainment (e.g., interactive video games, social media, apps ), transportation (e.g., navigation systems), shopping (e.g., online shopping, credit cards), medicine (e.g., medical equipment, medical records), and the list goes on. How much of your daily life relies on technology? How much of your personal information is stored either on your own computer, smartphone, tablet or on someone else's system?
What are the risks to having poor cybersecurity?
There are many risks, some more serious than others. Among these dangers are malware erasing your entire system, an attacker breaking into your system and altering files, an attacker using your computer to attack others, or an attacker stealing your credit card information and making unauthorized purchases. There is no guarantee that even with the best precautions some of these things won't happen to you, but there are steps you can take to minimize the chances.
What can you do to improve your cybersecurity?
The first step in protecting yourself is to recognize the risks. Familiarize yourself with the following terms to better understand the risks:
- Hacker, attacker, or intruder – These terms are applied to the people who seek to exploit weaknesses in software and computer systems for their own gain. Although their intentions are sometimes benign and motivated by curiosity, their actions are typically in violation of the intended use of the systems they are exploiting. The results can range from mere mischief (creating a virus with no intentionally negative impact) to malicious activity (stealing or altering information).
- Malicious code – Malicious code (also called malware) is unwanted files or programs that can cause harm to a computer or compromise data stored on a computer. Various classifications of malicious code include viruses, worms, and Trojan horses. (See Protecting Against Malicious Code for more information.) Malicious code may have the following characteristics:
- It might require you to actually do something before it infects your computer. This action could be opening an email attachment or going to a particular webpage.
- Some forms of malware propagate without user intervention and typically start by exploiting a software vulnerability. Once the victim computer has been infected, the malware will attempt to find and infect other computers. This malware can also propagate via email, websites, or network-based software.
- Some malware claims to be one thing, while in fact doing something different behind the scenes. For example, a program that claims it will speed up your computer may actually be sending confidential information to a remote intruder.
- Vulnerabilities – Vulnerabilities are flaws in software, firmware, or hardware that can be exploited by an attacker to perform unauthorized actions in a system. They can be caused by software programming errors. Attackers take advantage of these errors to infect computers with malware or perform other malicious activity.
To minimize the risks of cyberattacks, follow basic cybersecurity best practices:
- Keep software up to date. Install software patches so that attackers cannot take advantage of known problems or vulnerabilities. Many operating systems offer automatic updates. If this option is available, you should enable it. (see Understanding Patches and Software Updates for more information.)
- Run up-to-date antivirus software. A reputable antivirus software application is an important protective measure against known malicious threats. It can automatically detect, quarantine, and remove various types of malware. Be sure to enable automatic virus definition updates to ensure maximum protection against the latest threats. Note: Because detection relies on signatures—known patterns that can identify code as malware—even the best antivirus will not provide adequate protections against new and advanced threats, such as zero-day exploits and polymorphic viruses.
- Use strong passwords. Select passwords that will be difficult for attackers to guess, and use different passwords for different programs and devices. It is best to use long, strong passphrases or passwords that consist of at least 16 characters. (See Choosing and Protecting Passwords.)
- Change default usernames and passwords. Default usernames and passwords are readily available to malicious actors. Change default passwords, as soon as possible, to a sufficiently strong and unique password.
- Implement multi-factor authentication (MFA). Authentication is a process used to validate a user’s identity. Attackers commonly exploit weak authentication processes. MFA uses at least two identity components to authenticate a user’s identity, minimizing the risk of a cyber attacker gaining access to an account if they know the username and password. (See Supplementing Passwords.)
- Install a firewall. Firewalls may be able to prevent some types of attack vectors by blocking malicious traffic before it can enter a computer system, and by restricting unnecessary outbound communications. Some device operating systems include a firewall. Enable and properly configure the firewall as specified in the device or system owner’s manual. (See Understanding Firewalls for Home and Small Office Use.)
- Be suspicious of unexpected emails. Phishing emails are currently one of the most prevalent risks to the average user. The goal of a phishing email is to gain information about you, steal money from you, or install malware on your device. Be suspicious of all unexpected emails. (See Avoiding Social Engineering and Phishing Attacks.)
Refer to cybersecurity Tips and Cyber Essentials for more information from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) on how to improve your cybersecurity posture and protect yourself and from cyberattacks.