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How to practice good cybersecurity hygiene at university

James Davis

Careers Commentator

We live in a time when our most private moments are open to everyone. As a student who has grown up with this technology, the better part of your life will be online, so learning to protect it is invaluable. This article will go over just a few ways to cover yourself you may not be aware of. If you’re not a tech-literate person, that’s OK! We’ll be explaining a few of these terms, what they mean and why they’re important. Let’s get going.

Use a VPN on public networks

There are a couple of things to unpack here. A VPN stands for ‘virtual private network’. It’s a way to basically bounce everything you’re doing off servers in other countries so as to avoid being tracked. Some of your mates might use these for… less than legitimate purposes, but they’re a great way to stay safe online when you’re out and about. Here’s why.

Public networks, unlike your home internet connection, are open to being monitored by all manner of tools. Including your university network. While the intent here isn’t to hide from your university’s network administrators, it’s to avoid anyone on campus who might be misusing the internet by monitoring traffic through covert means. This could be as innocuous as seeing when you’ve clicked on a page and how long you stayed to outright downloading keylogging software or malware (malicious software). In other words, nothing good! Using a VPN avoids this risk. If they don’t know where you’re logging in from, or what device, which is what a VPN disguises, you’re in a far less risky position. 

There are tonnes of VPNs available online, but it’s worth shelling out for a paid one. Free VPNs can not only be of lower quality, but also fall victim to the one thing they claim to prevent: monitoring and selling your data. It’s a great investment though. Gives you peace of mind whenever you’re in an airport, cafe or just out in the city and your phone connects to a public network. 

Use a TOR browser and encrypted email services

These free alternatives to common browsers and email services give you an extra level of privacy. In the case of encrypted mail, all your messages are safe from anyone who may wish to spy on what you’re doing. In the case of TOR browsers, which stands for ‘The Onion Router’, these routes your traffic through various peers on the network, making it impossible to track who’s doing what. Again, this has numerous illegal applications you may have heard of, but it also serves many legitimate purposes too. Namely, a much higher level of security. While Google and similar big data companies offer easily accessible services for free, the hidden cost is your data. You’re the product. By switching to encrypted mail alternatives and a TOR browser, you’re giving yourself an extra layer of security.

Carefully analyse all email links and attachments

This is one of the most common ways to get hacked and one of the main causes of the ANU breach. Users were viewing dodgy emails, which then ran malicious code.

You can tell what a ‘dodgy email’ looks like by a few things.

  • The content of the email looks official, but there are numerous grammatical or spelling mistakes.
  • The email is highly non-specific, not mentioning your name, nor theirs. 
  • The sender address is misspelled, or representing an arm of your university (or organisation for that matter) that doesn’t exist. 

An example of a ‘phishing’ email from the ANU cyber attack report.

And above all…

Stay alert, not only on your behalf, but your friends and family. The internet is full of dodgy links and websites. Friends may have their emails or Facebooks profiles hijacked, with bots then sending you advertising. Hackers can go after less tech-illiterate people, like your grandparents, if they can’t get to you. Spread advice whenever you can and help those who ask and you’ll not only be doing yourself a favour, but everyone around you.