As a follow-up to my post about the scamming/hacking attack I had two weeks ago, this week I’m turning TechCommGeekMom.com over to a good friend of mine, Shay Shaked. We first met in grad school at NJIT as classmates, and have been friends ever since. Shay is more of a technology geek than even I am, so when my system got hacked two weeks ago by the phone scammers, he was one of the people who offered me some good advice and pointers along the way to my laptop recovery. I asked him if he would share some of the wisdom that he’s shared with me with my TechCommGeekMom readers, and he said, “Of course!” Here is TechCommGeekMom’s first guest post! It’s a little long, but I encourage you to read the entire thing– good stuff!
Two weeks ago, TechCommGeekMom fell victim to the hands of a malicious scammer who managed to access her computer remotely by talking her into believing he was actually a Microsoft employee. The scammer was smart, confident, and very efficient. Reading through her post sent shivers down my spine (as a matter of fact, I am backing up my files as I’m writing this post) and made me realize that we are all vulnerable, especially these days, when technology is everywhere and computers have to be used on a daily basis.
TechCommGeekMom was able to recover rather quickly. The first thing she did was to share her experience with us, so we could all learn from what happened. She also shared a few tips about security of private information, and asked me if I would like to expand and talk in length in this post.
Today, security does not have to come at the price of convenience–quite the opposite. I have switched between four different computers in the last five years, and the transition to the cloud made each switch easy and painless. But the real benefit of cloud apps, I’ve discovered, is in added productivity. I am going to introduce some of the popular cloud services (and some less well-known ones) from the perspective of a paperless, digital person. I hope that when you’re done reading this post you will at least be convinced to give these apps a try, if you haven’t already.
Google Drive’s most important feature, in our case, is its ability to replace Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint and even Access, for free. Throughout my time as a graduate student on a tight budget, I calculated I could do more than 90% of my work using Google Drive’s documents.
Google Documents now features two additional important features that makes it even more effective. It has an offline mode, which allows one to create and edit files even without internet connection. It also has a research pane which allows you to research your topic (via a search term on Google) from inside the document, and add whatever reference one may find directly into the document’s reference list in APA style.
Google gives users 5GB of free space to begin with, and documents created inside Google Drive do not take any room. This includes small pictures included in saved documents, such as background for presentations, mugshots, or logos. Additionally, Google Drive makes sharing or sending files to other people incredibly easy, even if they do not have a Google account! Documents can even be sent from within Google Drive as an attachment (.doc, .docx, .pdf and more) directly to an email address without downloading anything, so no obnoxious email attachment on your end.
As great as Google Drive is, it is not the best place to upload files and scanned documents. Google Drive’s interface is still too clumsy to be used for organization, and I often need t search for what I need. For scanned documents and quick notes, I use Evernote.
In my opinion, Evernote is the best place for PDF files. Evernote’s excellent tagging system, flexible folders and powerful search (which can read texts from inside images) is exactly what’s missing from Google Drive’s system. I use it to save anything from receipts (using my phone to take snapshots) to a copy of my driver license (I will explain how I protect sensitive documents shortly). It is extremely easy to email documents directly from the app to someone’s email.
Evernote comes in a free version which allows users to upload up to 60MB per month, or a paid version that allows up to 1GB per month with many additional benefits. I have used the free version for a while and never ran out of space allowance.
Important information tip 1:
One of the best ways to protect your personal information is to keep it separate from your “public” information. It just so happens that Evernote and Google Drive create this separation for me automatically: anything that I need to share, publish, or have others edit and work on, is on Google Drive, while all my personal documents and more sensitive information is stored in Evernote. This means your personal files are stored under different username and a different password (because you do use different credentials for each website, right??)
Adobe Reader is mentioned here because the newest versions come with a very simple, yet powerful feature: the ability to sign your name electronically directly into the PDF file. In the past, I had to download the PDF file, print it, sign it, scan it, and then send it back as an attachment. Not any more. Today I open my PDF file, sign my name, save it (to Evernote) and send it. Done.
Information tip 2:
When you’re not sure what kind of file to send your document in, use a PDF file. If you don’t know what Word version the HR department has, or you want to make sure your resume looks on their screen exactly the same way it looks on yours, send a PDF. PDF files also happen to be the easiest to open, encrypt (protect with a password) and are the industry standard for scanned papers and official documents online. Make sure you have the most recent version of Adobe Reader installed and save yourself the headache.
FoxyUtils is a website that does one important thing: it protects your PDF with a password. Upload a file to FoxyUtils, and choose to restrict the file from opening, printing, and copying its context to the computer’s clipboard (which means, no copy-pasting). FoxyUtils also allows users to split one multi-paged PDF into several PDF files, or do the opposite by combining several PDF files into one big PDF file.
Information tip 3:
I believe my personal information is safer inside a password protected PDF on a protected server in a locked building than it is in a drawer at my desk. If you’re serious about using the cloud to store your files and using PDFs, I recommend buying Adobe Acrobat (not just the free reader), which comes with additional features, most notably, better encryption. Keep in mind though that if you password protect your file, programs such as Evernote won’t be able to read its content and make it searchable, as it would with non-protected files.
Hardware – The Non-Cloud stuff for the Cloud
1 – Scanner
Most people would assume an external hard drive with good encryption is the best and safest way to store sensitive documents. In my opinion, that’s a bad mistake to make. The most important thing to consider about your information safety is a scanner.
If you don’t already have one, you can probably find an all-in-one printer (a printer, scanner fax and copier) for a price tag of less than $50. Most printers also ship with software that allows users to quickly convert scanned documents into PDFs, but even without such software, users can quickly upload a file into Google Drive and download it as a PDF if needed.
Information tip 4:
Why a scanner? Because prevention is the best form of protection. Your computer should never store your important documents, and an external hard drive with these documents available is nothing but an extension of your computer. You might as well just glue a glowing sticker to it saying, “My most important information is in here!” Remember, when you store sensitive documents on your computer you’re not only putting yourself at risk, but also others whose information is on these documents as well.
2 – The Backup External Hard Drive
The second device you want to have available is an external hard drive for backups. There are two very important rules when it comes to backup hard drives. First, don’t use the backup hard drive for anything else but backups. Second, don’t use the backup hard drive for anything else but backups.
Your external hard drive should be connected to your computer periodically to store files that are either in the cloud already, or on the way to get there. It is a secondary stop; it is an emergency storage in case you have no connection to the internet–like an airplane black box. And, it should be treated that way. Do not use this hard drive to store anything else under any circumstances.
Why am I so strict about this? Because the second you start using your backup hard drive to store music, movies and pictures, it is the second it ceases to be an “in case of emergency” black box and becomes an entertainment storage unit. Soon after, you will start to taking it to work, and your crucial information will be moving along with you in a storage unit that isn’t meant to handle traveling. You could actually severely damage your hard drive by shaking it too hard, not to mention, forgetting it or losing it. Leave it at home on your computer desk, where it belongs.
Information tip 5:
Not storing personal information on your computer means not storing it on your backup hard drive either. If you use a cloud service that downloads files into your computer (like Dropbox), do not use this cloud service for your sensitive information. Remember, your information is and more available on the cloud.
Information tip 6:
A couple of years ago someone came up with the genius invention: a USB drive. To this day, despite the millions of cloud services out there available, there is no more reliable and simple way to keep files you need. An 8GB USB drive is available today for less than $20 (and you can probably get one for less than $10 if you don’t need so much room). That size is enough to store about 2000 songs, or about 7 high-definition movies. Never store your sensitive information on a USB drive! If you need to send someone sensitive information, make sure it’s in encrypted PDF file, and send it directly from the cloud.
Private Information Hard Drive
No matter how secure the cloud is, some information is simply too private. In that situation, I suggest getting an additional, smaller hard drive that can be easily carried and encrypted. A good example for a hard drive for traveling is Western Digital My Passport line. These hard drives do not require a separate AC connection and built with less movable parts that can get damaged. They are also small and light enough to fit in your pocket. Do not mix this private information with your other personal information. Your driver license, passport and tax returns do not belong there.
No home-office today is complete without a shredder. No matter how technology savvy and paperless person you are, chances are that some company (especially bank and utility companies) still insist on sending paper statements. These are dangerous and can lead to identity theft if not disposed of correctly. Do yourself a favor and spend the $30 or so on a simple shredder. Not only will you feel safer, you will also save room in your trash bin and become more recycle-friendly. Get rid of any copies of documents you have laying around. After all, a new copy can always be printed .
Some Final Words of Advice
These suggestions are probably not the only ones out there, but they are based on years of personal trial and error experience. Each one of the apps mentioned have many more features than what is covered in this post.
One area not mentioned as it would require a whole blog post to itself is smartphone security. Smartphones, if used correctly, can be an additional security measure and a crucial addition to cloud capabilities, especially if the goal is to go completely paperless. Investing in a smartphone doesn’t have to be expensive, and it can save users a lot of time and frustration.
Use your brain. Learn to create hard-to-guess passphrases, and remember to change them periodically. Most hackers out there still use brute-force methods to break passwords, which means they would use a software to guess any possible combination of letters and numbers until they get it right. If you use a 20-character passphrase, you are probably much safer than using a 4-digit pin number. Wipe out your computer regularly, and restore your files from your backups. This will not only make your computer safer, it would also keep it faster and free from malicious software. Protect your computer with a screensaver password, so every time you get up from your computer and leave it for more than 5 minutes, it would require a password to resume using it. Never store any passwords in your web browser–you would be shocked to know how accessible these passwords are. Create a guest account on your computer and log out of your account before handing it out to a friend, a coworker or your children–especially your children. Children are smarter than you think and they will snoop around, out of curiosity.
I hope this post was useful to you! If you have any questions, suggestions or any words of feedback, feel free to contact me at my blog, blog.shayshaked.com.
Shay Shaked is an aspiring teacher and educator, specializing in technology and special education. He is currently a teacher at the innovative New Shul School in NYC, and pursuing two Masters degrees, one at NJIT in Technical Communications, and the other at Touro College in Special Education. Shay is also a personal communication and health enthusiast, and blogs about these topics at his blog, blog.shayshaked.com, on Twitter as @blueeyednyc, and on Google Plus.