With new data breaches constantly making headlines, you know about the need to secure your online accounts. But hackers aren't the only threat to your personal information. Burglars could steal sensitive papers from your home, snoopers could raid your trash, and companies could track you all around the internet.
To really want to level up your protection, check out some of the apps and gadgets dedicated to keeping your private information private. Here are the software and hardware tools you need to know about.
Encrypted messenger apps
Nobody wants strangers listening in on their text conversations. To avoid eavesdroppers, install the free messaging app Signal (for Android and iOS) on your phone. It employs a strong encryption protocol that encodes all of your messages—which means, even if someone intercepts them, that person won't be able to read them.
Like a standard messaging app, Signal supports voice and video calls, group chats, GIFs, and emojis. However, it keeps encryption on all of the time, and if you really don't want a conversation to leave any record, the app can even make your sent messages disappear from the recipient's phone, Snapchat-style.
Signal isn't your only option for secure messaging: The Facebook-owned IM service WhatsApp (free for Android and iOS) also offers tight, integrated encryption (in fact, it relies on the same protocol that Signal uses). While more of your friends probably use WhatsApp, it's not quite as private as Signal—because it still collects some of your data.
Not all of your information lives on the internet. Printed papers, as well as your physical computer and phone, should be safe in your home—but a security system will keep them safer. To deter burglars (or catch a fridge-raiding housemate, or keep an eye on pets), try a motion-sensitive camera. This gadget proves a 24/7 live feed inside your home, which you can access on your phone or a website. To help you narrow down your options, we picked out two of our favorite ones.
The indoor-only Nest Cam IQ ($300) will ping your phone whenever it detects suspicious movement—and yes, it can tell the difference between a person and a swaying tree. If you pony up for an extra Nest Aware subscription ($10 per month or $100 per year), you can also store up to 10 days of recorded footage in the cloud and teach your camera to recognize certain faces, so friends and family won't prompt an alert.
For a slightly more flexible option, you can place the Netgear Arlo cameras (two for $217 on Amazon) just about anywhere—they're petite in size, work both indoors and outdoors, and rely on batteries so they don't need cable attachments. Like the Nest Cam, Arlo's on-board software will ping your phone or send you an email when it detects motion, so you can keep an eye on what's happening while you're not there.
Encrypted messenger apps protect your conversations, but what about the rest of the information you send from your phone? A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, app will encrypt all of the data your phone beams into the world. This makes it harder for anyone—your Internet Service Provider, government agencies, or individual hackers—to tap into your communications.
Free VPNs tend to run more slowly and less reliably than the ones you pay for. However, Opera VPN (for Android and iOS) is an exception. Simple to set up and operate, this app not only encrypts your activity, but also blocks ads from tracking you across the web and allows you to spoof your location so you seem to be in different parts of the world. That said, free VPNs like Opera do collect information about how you use your phone—they make their money by studying anonymized data to pick out trends or selling this data to other companies.
Of the paid-for options, two apps earn consistently good reviews for high speeds and strong performances: ExpressVPN (for Android and iOS), with prices ranging from $8 to $13 a month (depending on how many months you purchase at once), and IPVanish (for Android and iOS), which costs between $6.50 and $10 a month (again, depending on how long you sign up for). Both VPNs include desktop applications, which will encrypt your computer browsing the same way the mobile app protects your phone. And they also offer month-long free trials, so you can test the apps out before committing.
Storing your gadgets and papers in a safe, one small enough to keep in your home office or bedroom, puts another barrier between would-be burglars and your property. This also makes it harder for anyone else—housemates, kids, dinner guests—to start messing around with your gear. More expensive models will be heavier and harder to crack, and may even come with properties like fire and water resistance. But even a cheaper safe is better than nothing.
On the cheaper end, the AmazonBasics Security Safe ($44 from Amazon) gives you half a cubic foot of room, which would fit roughly 2.5 soccer balls. Protected by a simple keypad-entry system, this safe also comes with physical keys for backup access. Four bolts let you fasten it securely to a floor, wall, or desk.
If you can afford a pricier option, the SentrySafe Fire and Water Safe ($180 from Amazon) has a roomier 1.23 cubic feet of space—closer to six and a quarter soccer balls—for your precious valuables. It can also resist fire at temperatures up to 1700ºF and water at depths up to 8 inches. To deter theft, it boasts a steel casing, four live locking bolts, and a pry-resistant hinge bar.
Password manager apps
Passwords serve as the first line of defense for your online accounts. For maximum security, you should have a different one for every account, from your bank to your email—but in reality, who can remember all of those individual codes? A password manager can.
This type of app stores all of your account information—as well as other sensitive data, such as credit card information—under one username and password, allowing you to protect your various log-ins without memorizing more than one. The manager can even generate strong, random passwords for each account. Because you're entrusting so much information to a single app, you need to choose a service, such as LastPass or Dashlane, with impeccable reviews.
LastPass will store and protect your information for free. But if you upgrade to the premium version, which costs $2 to $4 per month, you gain a few extra abilities: letting family members share account information, dealing with accounts protected by two-factor verification (which require an additional code on top of the password), and logging into apps as well as online accounts.
Just as competent and nicely designed as LastPass, Dashlane also offers a basic version for free. When you pay $3 to $4 a month, you also get to sync your details across multiple devices, share passwords with others, and manage multiple users. Although we give LastPass a slight edge because its free version includes more features, such as multiple device support, you can't go wrong with either.
Many online accounts, from Facebook to Google, protect your security with two-factor verification, a log-in method that requires, in addition to your username and password, that you enter a temporary code the site sends to your phone. However, you can swap that extra code for a physical USB stick like YubiKey.
Plug a YubiKey ($40 on Amazon) into your computer, and it will move you past the two-factor authentication process with the press of a button. It works with hundreds of accounts, including Google, Dropbox, Facebook, Windows, and macOS. You can even use it in conjunction with password managers like LastPass and Dashlane.
You do need to set up your YubiKey, but the process is very straightforward, and if you run into trouble, you can find detailed instructions on the YubiKey website. Once setup is complete, attach one of these USB sticks to your keyring or slide one into your wallet, and you'll be good to go.
Digital vault apps
You should already be protecting your phone with some kind of lock screen security. For added peace of mind, employ a digital vault app to hide sensitive photos, financial data, and other private personal information. Even if someone gains access to your phone—say a friend borrows it or a thief swipes it—they won't be able to look inside your vault. Again, we've picked two of our favorite options.
Keeper Password Manager (for Android and iOS) provides a protected digital vault for storing private documents, photos, videos, and other files. If you plan to use it on only one device, it's free. But if you purchase an individual plan for $30/year or a family plan for $60/year, you'll also get features like cross-platform syncing and secure cloud backup.
Another good option—this one for iPhone users only—is Avira Vault (for iOS), which can protect photos, passwords, and credit-card details. Although the base version is free, it limits your storage to 100 files, one credit card, and three passwords. To exceed that, you need to pay $4 per month. Although the app is only available for iOS, you can find a related Android app: Avira AppLock+ (for Android). Instead of creating a vault, this one lets you add extra PIN code protection to specific apps, such as your photo manager or your instant messenger.
ID theft is a lot harder to pull off if the would-be thief has to piece together your credit card report from 700 different fragments. So go ahead and invest in a home-office paper shredder that can blitz your documents into smithereens before you throw them away.
For maximum security, opt for a machine that chops paper into smaller pieces, rather than strips. And if you spend a little more, you'll be able to shred thicker paper at faster rates. It's also worth investing in a chopper that can destroy credit cards, DVDs, and CDs as well as paper.
We like the Fellowes 62MC ($90 on Amazon), which can shred 10 sheets at once in relative quiet. For the more budget-conscious, the AmazonBasics 6-Sheet shredder ($30 on Amazon) will still do a great job of destroying your private information, and it costs a lot less.