Best of the Drop — Protecting Your Privacy

Dear Black Bag Confidential Reader,

Today’s Weekly Drop is a collection of questions and answers that address various aspects of protecting your privacy — online and in everyday life.

Read on to discover an easy way to send encrypted emails (for free), why you should put a freeze on your credit and the most effective method of destroying your hard drive.

And that’s not all… Let’s take a look.

Recently, I read one of your articles about secure passwords but you didn’t mention password vault programs like KeePass, which generate VERY secure passwords, and as long as you can remember a reasonably simple password for the vault, which is on your own computer(s), you can have passwords that will make the hackers WORK to crack in. What do you think of programs like this?

—Geoffrey F.

The biggest reason I don’t use a password vault program like KeePass is that I don’t like to put all my eggs in one basket. On the off chance that my password program is compromised, I don’t want hackers to be able to access every single secure website I use.

In fact, about five years ago, LastPass discovered a possible breach in their security and required all users to change their master password. While the company doesn’t believe hackers accessed any confidential information, the risk exists, even though it’s small.

What is the best defense for malware, computer viruses and the like? I have tried big name-brand companies, but all but one time, I had a problem and they slowed my machine to a crawl. It’s worth it if that is the best option, but can you recommend anything?

— Lloyd K.

The best defense against malware and viruses is to take multiple steps that reduce the chances of your computer being infected.

First, I do recommend getting some type of antivirus software such as McAfee. Now, when a new virus is discovered, software companies typically update their security. So always check to make sure your computer has the latest software updates installed.

Second, although this should be pretty obvious, never download a file or attachment from an unknown source. Many hackers use email attachments and other scams to trick you into downloading something that will infect your computer. Always verify the sender before you click on or download anything.

Lastly, I also recommend using a virtual private network (VPN) such as TunnelBear. A VPN allows you to connect to the internet via a server run by a VPN provider. It securely encrypts your data and obfuscates your physical location by replacing your IP address with one from the provider. This makes it more difficult for hackers to infect your computer if you are using public Wi-Fi.

Our 20-year-old TV is starting to go. My husband wants a new big-screen TV, but I’m not sure I want one in my house. I’ve read that the government, businesses and crooks can hack your TV and listen to you, watch you, record credit card numbers for Netflix and everything else you buy, download films, use shopping apps, push targeted advertising and who knows what else. That gives me the creeps… I want to be comfortable and secure in my own home and not have to second-guess everything I say and do. If the new TV can spy on us, is there any way to disconnect that ability?

— Nancy C.

Unfortunately, Nancy, most new televisions are “smart TVs,” which means they’re part of the growing “internet of things,” items that connect to the internet for customizable functionality. Televisions these days offer streaming services, app downloads, even a web browser. And anything that connects to the internet carries the risk of being hacked. As smart TVs become more popular, it is likely hackers will begin targeting them more often. I’m glad you’re factoring security into your purchase.

Of course, you can still purchase TVs that don’t have the internet connection capabilities. You may have to forego the latest display technology, which would defeat the purpose of getting a new TV.

If you do purchase a smart TV, I recommend not connecting it to the internet — or any streaming service — to prevent a hacker from accessing your information.

In regard to your recent article about buying a used car that still has someone else’s information: Does this also apply to cellphone numbers? I recently got a new number and somebody else got mine. I recorded a short video of a female relative so she could see how some clothing fit her from different angles. The next day someone texted me to know if the female beauty was available. It was a little unnerving — I did not respond. I try my best not to put stuff on the cloud, but I know all my contact info is stored in Google Gmail somehow, which is probably the cloud, and somebody was viewing it. How do I clean that up??

— Thomas C.

Unfortunately, Thomas, since smartphones can be hacked in several different ways, it’s hard to say exactly how another person found your video. They could have accessed it by hacking into the cloud or by hacking into the device itself if you were surfing the internet on your phone using an unsecured Wi-Fi network.

When you get a new phone number, always remember to update your email account and any other accounts you have that are associated with the old number. If you forget to do this, the person who gets your old number might receive texts or calls regarding your accounts.

That being said, unless it’s required by the website, I recommend you do not share your phone number when setting up online accounts. It’s just one more way hackers can track you down or use social engineering scams to trick others into giving up personal information about you.

The bottom line is make sure to update all of your accounts with your new number or, at the very least, remove your old number.

[Spy lens technology] would definitely ensure transparency and honesty in business dealings. Does an average American like me have anything to be concerned about?

— William B.

At this point, William, I don’t think the average American has to worry about being subject to covert surveillance. However, as technology rapidly improves, I’m sure there will come a day when this type of surveillance is more common.

The bottom line is anytime you are out in public, you should assume there is a security camera — or perhaps someone with a camera phone — watching you.

How do I put a freeze on my credit to stop other people from using it? I have LifeLock but don’t think that is enough…

— Michael S.

First off, Michael, the thing about LifeLock is that they are a credit monitoring company. Basically, they can put alerts in your credit file and hopefully prevent fraudulent applications. But a credit freeze makes it impossible for anyone else to access your credit, which means you — and your livelihood — are much better protected.

You’ll need to contact the three main credit agencies — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — by going to each of their websites and applying for a credit freeze. It costs around $10 per company, depending on which state you reside in.

Once you complete the credit freeze application, each company will mail you a personal identification number (PIN) that you can use in the future to lift the freeze. No one else will be able to access your credit history without this PIN.

If you went to purchase a home or open a credit card, you would have to call each company and give them your PIN to temporarily remove the freeze so the realtor or credit card company could check your credit.

I’ve had a credit freeze in place for over 15 years. It’s one of the best ways to protect such sensitive information.

I sent you an encrypted email from my ProtonMail account. I was wondering if you’ve heard anything about using ProtonMail.

— Ron P.

I’ve heard of ProtonMail, but I haven’t personally used the service. If you’re not familiar with ProtonMail, basically, it offers end-to-end security encryption for your emails. The only drawback is that the person you are sending an email to also has to be using ProtonMail, or they won’t receive an encrypted email.

If that’s the case and you want your email to remain encrypted, you can send a link to a page where the receiver can view the email through ProtonMail using a secure password.

Another nice thing about this service is that you can set up emails to delete after a certain date. And since this email provider is free, it’s not a bad idea to use it as a way to send encrypted emails.

What is a good way to dispose of my computer’s hard drive?

—Richard K.

First, boil the hard drive for about 10 minutes. Then smash it into many different pieces with a hammer. After that, dispose of the fragments in several different trash cans. I realize this might sound like overkill, but it’s the best way to destroy the drive and erase your personal data.

Stay safe,

Jason Hanson

Jason Hanson

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