Online Safety 101: A Student's Guide to Protecting Personal Information

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The online world always finds itself in the firing zone of continuous reports of unsettling news related to data breaches. Almost every week there's a new headline about some large-size security breach. Billions of records having personally identifiable information (PII) get exposed each year. Students are hyper-connected on the internet. This is due to online classes, assignments, research, and other academic work. So they are highly susceptible to online threats. This makes it essential for online institutes and also the parents to take proactive steps. Their aim should be to safeguard the students' digital presence.

Online threats that students are particularly vulnerable to include:

  • Social Engineering: Crafty manipulation techniques employed by cybercriminals. Their aim is to deceive individuals into divulging confidential information.
  • Spam: Unsolicited and often deceptive emails or messages. These clutter inboxes with dubious offers and advertisements.
  • Adware: Malicious software that automatically displays or downloads advertising material. It causes disruptions and privacy breaches.
  • Trojans: Deceptive malware disguised as legitimate software. It is used to gain unauthorized access to a user's system.
  • Worms: Stand-alone malicious programs. These can self-replicate and spread through networks, infecting multiple devices.

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The power of password protection

No discussion on cyber safety for students can be complete without talking about password security. Solid password practices are your first line of defense. When it's about safeguarding your devices and online accounts, they play a key role.

The security industry consistently explores alternatives to traditional usernames and passwords. Biometrics and multi-factor authentication (MFA) have emerged as promising options. But they still rely on password-based foundations. So in the current scenario, password protection remains a critical aspect of students' online safety.

Biometric authentication: More than just convenience

Biometric authentication, often used for mobile device access, aims to enhance user convenience.

Biometric readers authenticate a user's fingerprint or facial features. Then it provides access to the device or app through a password. The key thing here to notice is that the password still exists. It can be manually entered. This makes biometric authentication just a faster, more user-friendly way to access passwords.

Biometrics do offer some extra security by reducing the likelihood of password observation. But they don't cut down the underlying reliance on passwords for device access.

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Multi-factor authentication is also referred to as Two Factor Authentication (2FA). It introduces safe internet practices that go beyond mere passwords. With MFA, an account or device login requires at least one extra piece of evidence. This second piece of evidence is typically a one-time code sent to the user's mobile device. This adds a substantial security layer.

Yet, it's important to note that certain vulnerabilities exist, such as SIM swap scams. These scams involve hackers using social engineering tactics. Their target is to get a replacement SIM card for the victim's phone. They also try to convince the carrier to switch the phone number to a SIM card they control. By doing so, they intercept 2FA text messages. They use this to exploit them for account takeover attacks.

Assessing password strength

When creating passwords or passphrases, it's essential to test their strength. Many online registration forms now include password-strength checkers. These offer feedback on the adequacy of your chosen password. These checkers classify passwords as weak, medium, or strong based on preset criteria.

But, these simple feedback mechanisms can be deceptive. To accurately gauge password strength, a password checker should perform more comprehensive tests. These include:

  • Checking against a blacklist of compromised values
  • Testing against common password dictionaries
  • Examining name dictionaries
  • Performing a substitution attack (e.g., replacing letters with symbols)
  • Scanning for character sequences (e.g., "12345" or "efghi")

Several online password-testing sites can assist students in evaluating password strength. These include:

  • My1Login
  • Dashlane
  • UIC Academic Computing and Communications Center

Always exercise caution when using online password-testing sites. Ensure that they do not transmit your password to their servers. The testing should occur exclusively within your browser for security.

The role of password managers

One of the most prevalent cybersecurity warnings is never to reuse passwords. And this is the best advice for student online safety.

A report from CSO highlights the scale of this threat. It states that over a 17-month period, there were 55 billion credential-stuffing attacks across different industries. This underlines the significance of avoiding password reuse.

Students today often have many password-protected accounts. Trying to remember unique passwords is a challenge. And this puts their security at risk. But there's a superior solution for digital safety for students - password managers. 

A password manager is a software program. It securely stores many passwords in a digital vault. The vault or wallet is protected by robust encryption. By using a password manager, students can memorize a single master password to access the vault. This eliminates the need to remember many complex passwords. Also, many password managers generate strong, unique passwords for various websites and services.

Notable password managers suitable for students include:

  • Dashlane Password Manager
  • Keeper Password Manager
  • LastPass

With a password manager, students can efficiently manage their passwords. This reduces the risk of credential-stuffing attacks.

Student cyber security essentials

Using a password manager and implementing multi-factor authentication is one thing. Students should also be aware of other online safety precautions. Cyber threats targeting students have become more sophisticated. So the knowledge of these threats, detection methods, and prevention strategies is crucial.

Beware of social engineering

Social engineering scams targeting students leverage social media platforms as the delivery method. These scams take advantage of students' social nature. They involve fake romantic encounters. Online dating sites are particularly susceptible to these types of scams.

To protect yourself from social engineering:

  • Never trust someone online. Regardless of how genuine they sound, keep a healthy level of skepticism.
  • Be alert when meeting in person: If you plan to meet someone you have met online, talk about it to a trusted friend and take them along. Always meet in a public place.
  • Guard your personal information. Never share sensitive data. It includes your full name, address, phone number, or class schedule with someone you haven't met in person.

The spam deluge

Students are particularly vulnerable to a torrent of spam emails. These fill their inboxes with enticing offers for credit cards, loans, and various other products and services. To tackle this issue:

  • Learn email blocking. Familiarize yourself with the email-blocking features offered by your email provider. Blocking unwanted emails helps maintain a clean inbox.
  • Exercise caution. When receiving unexpected offers or deals via email, remember the old saying "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." Avoid making impulsive decisions and take your time to assess offers.

The perils of adware

Adware represents malicious software. It automatically displays or downloads advertising content. It does so in the form of disruptive pop-ups or unclosable windows. Adware may appear as a nuisance but it serves as a gateway to more severe security threats.

To protect yourself from adware:

  • Be cautious when installing software. Adware is bundled with freeware or shareware programs. Carefully read installation prompts and opt out of any additional software or toolbars.
  • Regularly scan for and remove adware. Use reputable antivirus or anti-malware software.

The Trojan

Trojans are a type of malware. It disguises itself as legitimate software. This deceives users into downloading and installing it. Once infiltrated, Trojans can seize control of a user's device.

To safeguard against Trojans:

  • Avoid unknown links and downloads. Refrain from clicking on unfamiliar links. Also, avoid downloading files or documents from untrusted sources.
  • Exercise caution with email attachments: Be wary of email attachments from unknown senders. These can be common vectors for Trojan distribution.

Worms: unwanted self-replication

Worms are distinct from other malware types. They don't need an active host program or an already-infected operating system to function. Instead, worms are self-replicating programs that can spread throughout networks.

To minimize the risk of worm infections:

  • Use caution with network connections. Be mindful when connecting to unfamiliar networks and avoid the use of file-sharing services when possible. University and college networks typically use advanced security measures. But it's essential to stay vigilant.

Choosing the right security software

Securing your devices with cybersecurity tools is key to your online safety as a student. Whether you prefer a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop, adhering to specific precautions safeguards your digital assets. It helps to maintain your academic progress.

Here are essential device protection measures to adopt:

Password protect all devices

Each of your devices should be protected by a unique password. Reusing passwords for multiple accounts increases your vulnerability. Same way, sharing device passwords with others poses security risks. To protect your devices:

  • Assign unique passwords. Each device should have its password. This ensures that even if one password is compromised, the security of other devices remains intact.
  • Avoid sharing. Students often share devices with friends or peers. It's preferable to log into the device individually rather than sharing passwords.

Investigate apps before downloading

App stores are flooded with a vast array of applications. Some may harbor malicious intent. To avoid inadvertently downloading harmful software:

  • Conduct research. Take a few minutes to research apps before downloading them. Read user reviews. Check for reputable developers, and be cautious of apps with limited or no reviews.
  • Use trusted sources. Download apps only from official app stores. Do not use third-party sources as they are more susceptible to hosting malware.

Steer clear of suspicious links

Clicking on links is seen as more convenient than typing an entire URL address. But it's important to be alert when clicking on links in emails or on websites. Always ensure that links are accurate and legitimate. Taking a few extra seconds to verify a link is the best suggestion. It can prevent malware infections and other security threats.

Update software

Regularly updating your device's software is a vital component of online security. Software updates often include new security features and patches for known vulnerabilities. Outdated software is a prime target for hackers. So it's essential to keep your operating system, applications, and security software updated.

Beware of open WiFi networks

Open WiFi networks are convenient. But they pose significant security risks. Hackers have been known to create rogue open networks. Their idea is to lure unsuspecting students into connecting to a public network. These malicious networks are to facilitate man-in-the-middle attacks, malware distribution, and unauthorized snooping.

To stay safe:

  • Exercise caution. Be selective when connecting to WiFi networks, and avoid open networks when possible.
  • Use trusted networks. If connecting to public WiFi, choose networks offered by reputable establishments. These include coffee shops, libraries, and universities. Do not connect to unverified networks.

Regularly backup important data

Mistakes and unforeseen events can lead to data loss. This derails your academic pursuits. Regularly backing up your important data is a proactive measure. It significantly mitigates the impact of a data breach or hardware failure.

Conclusion: Empowering student to follow cybersecurity

These tips on cyber safety will reduce online challenges. But taking the time to learn and implement basic cybersecurity principles is an investment. It ensures your digital safety and impacts academic success. Risks are inherent in our connected world. So exercising common sense and paying attention to details is important. It can highly reduce the likelihood of falling victim to online threats.

 Author’s Bio

Mary Spwars writes in various tech areas including cybersecurity, coding, AI and ML, and data analytics. Her expertise comes from years of academic writing work and blogging on some of the top platforms. She’s still active as an essay writer as she believes that tech education is important. She believes in sharing ideas and information to enhance the knowledge level of students.


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