When it comes to going to college, few experiences can be more intimidating than the first year on campus. New friends, new freedom —and lots of ways a student's technological and personal data security can be breached.
If you want to keep yourself safe at school, then you're going to have to follow some basic guidelines. Nothing in life is ironclad, but these tips will help you dramatically decrease the chances of having your technology, or your identity, stolen while you are on campus.
Many parents assume that their kids know more about technology then they do, and that they are taking steps to protect a technology investment when they lecture them about computer security and best practices.
Kids are kids, and even college-age kids may need a nudge in the right direction when it comes to keeping technology and personal data safe. Talking about some of these things may elicit eye rolls, but it is worth the time.
Mark Fischer, chief security officer at Inspire Commerce, a financial-transaction technology provider in Boulder, Colo., summed up the steps for having and maintaining solid password protection on your machine.
"Password-protect your computer, and make sure it's set to auto-lockout visitors whenever it falls asleep," Fischer said. "The password should be complex, and it's best to change it every three months, or whenever anyone else you know has discovered it. Yes, this includes boyfriends/girlfriends, teachers, tutors, and friends."
Many new PCs come with some kind of security software built in, often as a trial version before a paid subscription kicks in.
If you've let this software expire, or you felt you didn't need it at home, then buy a subscription or find a free alternative. If you already have permanent anti-virus protection, make sure the software's running the latest version and automatically updates its virus definitions.
Don't assume that having a Mac is an excuse to not have good anti-virus software. There are plenty of options out there for Mac users, and sharing a computer virus or other form of malware with PC users is just as bad as getting one.
Boston-based online security expert Robert Siciliano has some handy guidelines for handling your personal information.
"Limit the amount of information you give out," Siciliano said. "While you may have to give out certain private data in certain circumstances, you should refuse whenever possible."
Siciliano suggests that students invest in a shredder to keep documents with personal information out of the wrong hands.
"Shred everything!" he said. "Old bank statements, credit card statements, credit card offers, and any other documents containing account numbers need to be shredded when no longer needed."
The ideas of getting to see a hot new movie for free, or updating your music library with the current hits for nothing, are appealing. But file-sharing sites and services are also a great way to get infected with the latest malware. No song is worth trashing your machine over.
Getting a laptop lock, or even a dorm-room safe, can be essential to keeping computers from walking out the door. College dorms are hotbeds of activity, and the number of people who will come in and out of any given room in a semester is stunning.
Any one of those people can walk out with your laptop. To protect other gadgets, such as music players or tablets, consider a small, portable safe. Whatever you choose, make sure it is used.
"Computers that are old and have outdated, unsupported operating systems are extremely vulnerable," Siciliano said. "Systems using older, outdated browsers such as IE 5 or 6 or older versions of Firefox are the path of least resistance [for malware]. Update your operating system to [Windows] XP SP3 or Windows 7."
Grab a piece of software, such as NoScript for Mozilla Firefox, that will block unauthorized scripts from running in your Web browser. Most of these plug-ins or add-ons will also block ads from your browser, reducing your exposure to online scams.
Alexander C. Pitzner, drector of technology services at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Harrisburg, Pa., recommends that students subscribe to online storage services that save their data. Students who do so won't lose everything if their systems fail. If you do subscribe to such a service, set it to automatically back up your machine daily.
"Make a separate administrative account," Pitzner said. "Your everyday account should be a 'non-administrative' account [that can't alter existing software]."
In Windows XP, this will bring the inconvenience of having to log in all over again as the administrative user when installing or updating software. In Mac OS X or in Windows Vista, 7 or 8, you'll need only to type in the administrator password while logged in as a limited user.