Cybersecurity and Online Learning: The Steps Every Student Needs to Take to Stay Safe

As an online student, you’ll be spending more time than ever on the web, reading, researching, chatting, and completing your coursework. But the more you do online, the more opportunities there are for your accounts or your system to be compromised and your personal information to fall into the hands of criminals.

October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month, so there’s no better time to reflect on ways that you as an online student can work to protect yourself from online security threats.

Why Cybersecurity Matters

Think it won’t happen to you? You’re not alone, but online attacks and information breaches are far more common than you might think and many of the behaviors you may not even question may be putting you at greater risk.

A study by The National Cyber Security Alliance and Raytheon surveyed young adults and found that:

  • 66% have connected to no-password-required public Wi-Fi.
  • 23% have shared an online password with a family member in the past year.
  • 48% have plugged in a portable storage device given to them by someone else.
  • 20% have never changed their online bank account password.
  • 18% do not protect their laptop or desktop with a password.

All of this matters because these behaviors make you an easy target for cyberattacks, which are distressingly common. In fact, a 2014 study found that nearly of half of U.S. adults had been hacked within the past 12 months.

And it’s not just theft and fraud that you need to worry about. Unsecured accounts can also allow stalkers and harassers easy access to information about you. This can have scary consequences, with many instances of stalking, bullying, and other forms of harassment escalating online, not just in person.

These are all good reasons to get serious about cyber security and to learn what you can do to keep your accounts safe. Taking action before any of these things happen to you is the best thing you can do to help prevent your online interactions to go from a thing of convenience and awesomeness to a total nightmare.

What You Can Do

There are a number of things that you can do to help protect yourself while you’re taking online courses and in your daily online life. Here are a few things to keep in mind while online to keep you money, and your information safe while learning, working, or just having fun in the online sphere.

Protect Your Hardware

Whether you’re using a laptop, tablet, or desktop to go online, these things can help you to keep it secure and keep cybercrime at bay.

  • Update your software. By updating your software, you’ll ensure that any security loopholes that exist will be closed as soon as companies have a fix for them.
  • Use an anti-virus program. It seems like a no-brainer but many people navigate the web without the safety net of an anti-virus. Don’t want to shell out for one? There are many free versions
  • Protect ALL your devices if they are internet connected. It’s not just your computer that you need to worry about these days. While phones and tablets are still attacked less frequently, they’re still an open door to people who may want to steal your information. Secure them as much as you can. Not sure what that entails? Find help here.
  • Block pop-ups. Most pop-ups are nothing more than an annoyance, but some are more nefarious. Blocking them altogether is a good way to ensure that you don’t accidentally click on one of the sneaky ones that are hiding malware or other viruses.
  • Always enable lock screens. Your phone, tablet, and computer should ALL have lock screens enabled so that they cannot easily be accessed by thieves should you misplace them.
  • Secure your home network. You can’t control Wi-Fi that you use at school or work, but you can ensure that your home network is as secure as possible. Start by giving your Wi-Fi network a strong password, ensuring that default settings (especially passwords) have been changed, and making sure to regularly update your router’s firmware.

Secure Your Accounts

Once you’ve ensured that your devices themselves are secure, it’s time to start practicing smart account security, too.

  • Never share your passwords. Sharing your passwords not only compromises your account security, but also can get you in hot water if someone uses your account for malicious activity.
  • Make passwords long and strong. Be smart: don’t use “password,” “1234”, or anything that could be easily guessed as a password. Watch this video to learn how to create a truly secure password. The more sensitive information an account contains, the more secure the password should be.
  • Don’t reuse passwords. It’s tempting to make all of your passwords the same thing so you only have to remember one password for all your sites, but that’s a pretty bad idea. If one account becomes compromised, then they all are. Change things up and use several different passwords.
  • Track your online presence. In today’s social media-driven world, it’s more important than even to manage your online presence. Make sure your accounts are private, check what’s been posted about you and limit access to information that tells people your schedule, where you live, or other personal information that could lead to potentially dangerous situations.
  • Do not store account information online. While it might be convenient, it’s generally not a good idea to store your account information online. If you absolutely must, use a secure site like LastPass to help you keep it away from prying eyes.
  • Set up account monitoring. For accounts that offer it, keep tabs on your security with account monitoring. This can ensure that you’re alerted the second a strange action takes place, a password is changed, or even if you’re logged on from a computer that hasn’t been registered to the account.
  • Use two-factor authentication when possible. In some cases, a password alone just isn’t enough. Two-factor authentication requires two different forms of authentication to allow you to sign into your account. Generally, this means entering both a password and completing another task sent to your mobile device. Who offers this system? Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Evernote, PayPal, Steam, Yahoo!, LinkedIn, WordPress, DreamHost, and Amazon Web Services to name just a few.

Practice Safe Internet Use

We all think we’re impervious to falling for a phishing scam or getting outsmarted by hackers, but the reality is that none of us are—that’s why being careful is important, even if it is inconvenient. Remember, dealing with a stolen identity or compromised account is a whole lot more annoying than taking a few precautions up front.

  • Trash anything that remotely looks like spam. If it looks like spam, it probably is. No one is going to randomly send you too good to be true offers in an email. Don’t click, just delete.
  • Use caution on public Wi-Fi and computers. Free Wi-Fi is a sweet deal, right? Maybe. You need to ensure that the network is legit (hackers sometimes lure people in to connecting to their networks), and even if it is, NEVER transmit sensitive information over any unsecured network. And take care when using public computers, too, to ensure that your personal logins and information aren’t saved.
  • Look for HTTPS. While it’s not always necessary, using sites with HTTPS (the secure version of HTTP, where all communications are encrypted) doesn’t hurt. You can install an extension in your browser that will automatically access the https version of a site if it’s available.
  • Back it up. Never have just one copy of important information or documents. Back up your schoolwork or other documents to a cloud-based drive, second computer, USB drive, or other external drive.
  • Don’t download free media. Torrents may be tempting (every episode of Game of Thrones!? Score!), but many are loaded with malware. Only download free things from trusted, mainstream sites that are less likely to contain unwanted tag alongs.
  • Know your privacy settings. Do you know how secure your information really is? Make sure that any accounts you have keep your address, phone numbers, and any other personal information you might not want out there in the wild west of the web private.

Learn More About Cyber Security

Want to learn more? First, reach out to COD’s HelpDesk for specific issues or security advice. If you’re still hungry for more, take advantage of some of these helpful online resources.  

Stop Think Connect: Stop Think Connect is a global cybersecurity awareness campaign created in partnership by private companies, government organizations, non-profits, and groups like the National Cyber Security Alliance and the Anti-Phishing Working Group. It’s a great place to find resources and advice on up-to-the-minute security issues.

Stay Safe Online: This organization is an incredibly useful resource for those hoping to learn some cybersecurity skills, address data security, or even help teach others about security issues.

Information Security Guide: Here, you’ll find a guide created for IT professionals in higher education on improving cybersecurity. While aimed at professionals, it does contain some great information on everything from cloud security to security awareness.

Student’s Guide to Internet Security and Safety: This site is chock full of resource sheets related to Internet safety, including cyberbullying, viruses and malware, safe websurfing, and more.

Security Tips IT Personnel Wish Students Knew: Learn what your’e doing that would make a cybersecurity professional cringe from this expert-driven article on NBC.