Start 2021 by fixing your online privacy

Preventing a hack is a lot simpler than most other New Year’s resolutions.

Going into 2021, the idea of New Year’s resolutions can seem fruitless. After the onslaught of 2020, it can feel downright silly to think you’re going to make any revolutionary changes in your life in a time when every day blurs into the next. Luckily, fixing up your privacy and security online is a simple goal that you can achieve without having to change out of your pajamas or venture into the real world. And even though the actions are relatively simple, they can protect you from some serious problems down the road. The last thing 2021 needs is a bout of identity theft to pick up where 2020 left off.

Keep your hardware and software updated

If your smartphone and computer operating systems regularly light you up with more notifications than your noisiest family group chat, then it’s time to apply some operating system updates.

Annoying as they may be, keeping your OS current can protect you and your devices from known security holes that could go un-patched if you keep pushing off the update process. When you see those update notifications, you can often click on them to see just what new features and fixes are included. Often, with big updates like major OS changes, the security features can get overshadowed by flashy new design and functionality features.

Turning on automatic updates makes it simple to stay up to date, but at least work on not letting the same update pop-up linger for very long.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that companies don’t support devices or software versions forever. If you’re still using an iPhone 6 that you’ve been holding onto forever, for instance, it’s no longer eligible for software updates, which isn’t ideal. If you’re still clinging to an old version of Windows, the same idea applies.

Delete old apps

It may seem harmless to leave old apps kicking around on your phone or computer, but there are some downsides. First, they eat up a surprising amount of storage space. If you’re not using an app and you don’t have automatic updates turned on, then it’s easy to let it get out of date.

Operating systems have gotten better about revoking access to your data from apps you haven’t used in a while, but there’s no real benefit for keeping that funky app that makes your photos look vaguely like oil paintings if you never even use it anymore. Delete them.

Use a password manager

By now, you probably have hundreds of online accounts, many of which are totally dormant. Imagine you bought a pair of shoes from some website in 2016 that required you to make an account. You used the same password you use for everything. In 2018, that website experienced a breech and your password was compromised, but you never heard about it. Now, long after those shoes have gone out of style, your info is still out there and available to people who may want to get into your other, more important, accounts. It happens more than you think.

A password manager like 1Password, Keeper, or Dashlane generate hard-to-crack, unique passwords for your accounts and lets you log into them easily without having to remember them. It may seem like a lot of hassle, but it’s also worth considering just how shockingly bad people are at passwords. Look through the huge data bases of breached personal information and you’ll find the most popular options are simple phrases like “12345” and even the old standby, “password.” Don’t be that person.

If you still resist using a password manager, at least take a look at some of your most important accounts and give them an update. There are several resources for avoiding common mistakes like making them too short or thinking that replacing an “E” with a “3” is clever enough to fool hackers.

Swear off those scammy Facebook apps

Do you want to find out what Santa wrote about you on his naughty list this year? Or maybe you want to see a stock photo that supposedly looks exactly like you will when you’re old. Facebook apps make lame promises like this in exchange for access to the scads of personal information that Facebook already collects about you. These Facebook apps aren’t quite as risky as they were back in the early days of Facebook integration, when the infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal was taking place. Now, however, opting into one of those services provides random companies with a lot more information than they need about you for almost no payoff.

If you have third party accounts tied into your Facebook, this is also a good time to try and sort them out or unlink them. It used to be simple to log into services like Spotify using your Facebook credentials, but that’s not the most secure way to operate. You’re better off using a unique login or, if you have the option, using something like Log In with Apple, which provides more security features than Facebook.

Turn on two-factor authentication

Even if you have a solid password, it’s not impossible for hackers to crack or even bypass it, which is why two-factor authentication can come in handy. Until relatively recently, most 2FA methods involved getting a text or an email on your phone with a security code required to log in. Many services still use this method, but it’s not as secure as using an authenticator app. With a typical SMS text, motivated bad guys can intercept the messages without needing direct physical access to your phone. That’s not the case with an authenticator app, which makes it more secure.

Some services allow you to use a physical security key like Google’s Titan security key.

Go through some basic security checkups

Several of the larger tech companies offer you the opportunity to go through and adjust your specific privacy and security settings. If you haven’t dug into those menus in a while, you may be surprised to see just how many options there are when it comes to controlling what you share. Here are links to a few of the bigger apps to help guide you through the process.

Stan Horaczek
Stan Horaczek

is the senior gear editor at Popular Science and Popular Photography. His past bylines include Rolling Stone, Engadget, Men's Journal, GQ, and just about any other publication that has ever written about gadgets. For a short time, he even wrote the gadget page for Every Day With Rachel Ray magazine. He collects vintage cameras, eats pizza, and hopes you won't go looking at his Tweets even though the link is down there.