Visiting relatives over the holidays? Along with strategically avoiding any remotely political conversations, now’s the perfect time to help your loved ones better understand their personal digital security. They need it now more than ever.
It’s a whole lots easier to walk someone through a security hygiene lesson when you’re both in the same room. The simpler the better, and there’s nothing quite as straightforward as an in-person lesson. “You don’t want to add things that might make it more complicated for people to use a technology, but some of it is pretty simple and really adds an extra layer of protection,” says Michael Kaiser, the executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance. Here are three quick and easy security upgrades you can do to help relatives stay safe in cyberspace. You’ll be done before it’s time to pass the yams.
Download Firmware, Operating System, and App Updates
You know the drill. Gather Uncle Timmy’s devices—smartphone, tablet, e-reader, laptop, desktop, etc.—then have him sit with you while you download updates so he can enter passwords as needed. (Also, remind him to bring that index card he writes all his passwords down on.) Ideally this is the time to teach him the process so he can do it on his own, but if that’s too stressful just go ahead and update everything yourself. Infrequent updates are better than no updates.
While you’re at it, find out which apps your relative can live without. Maybe he downloaded a bunch of spammy free solitaire apps back before his mahjong phase. Or he may have six different photo managers downloaded on his computer. Less clutter means less to update in the future.
It’s also just a good time to remind your relative why software updates and regular paring are so important. It’s not just new features and performance upgrades, although those are good too. Software updates contain invaluable security patches, protecting devices against vulnerabilities that, often, are out in the open. Your spiel might also convince them to embrace the auto-update features of Windows, macOS (and recent versions of OS X), iOS, and Android. Better still? It’s a mostly passive activity. It may take an hour, in some cases, to get the most recent firmware in there, but most of that time can be spent watching a movie or the Lions game. Just make sure you’ve got plenty of charging cables and outlets on hand as well.
Bonus Points: Do a Total Operating System Upgrade
Operating system upgrades on both mobile and desktop are helpful because they incorporate a company’s latest security posture, but they’re also a major time-suck, and sometimes dramatically alter the user experience for relatives who may already be struggling with daily tech tasks. You know what, though? It’s worth it. Especially if someone you love is still on Windows XP, an OS so old it hasn’t gotten a security patch in over two years.
Securely Configure Wi-Fi Networks
Unless you personally set up the Wi-Fi network at your Aunt Shirley’s house, you can’t be confident that it’s secure. It needs to be! An unencrypted Wi-Fi network means open season for random people joining it to steal connectivity, or worse, to snoop.
Your first order of business? Confirm that your relative’s Wi-Fi network is password-protected. Then make sure that it’s configured as “WPA2,” which will encrypt the connections. It can take some effort to find the manual for whatever random router your relative bought on sale at Costco five years ago, but if you have the model number you can Google for the instructions. Install firmware updates for the router, set a memorable network password that incorporates a mix of letters and numbers, and then connect all your relative’s devices to the new network so they don’t get confused. Ideally you won’t need to write the password down, but store it somewhere out of sight if you do (not on the refrigerator).
Bonus Points: Bring a New Router to Install
It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where you arrive at your relative’s house, assess the Wi-Fi situation, and realize that either his router is really crappy (isn’t outputting the bandwidth the modem can provide) or he’s using a modem/router combo provided by his cable company that … is really crappy. If you want major extra credit, preemptively buy a solid router and bring it with you. Is it fun to shell out an extra $80 for this? No. Will you become the golden child of the family? Realistically, no, because people will not appreciate how nice this is or have any idea what you’re doing. Is it the right thing to do? Yes. You’ll be gifting stronger signal, faster connection speeds, and better security to everyone who uses the network.
Strengthen Email Password
Let’s just get real for a second: This is a whole thing. You’re not going to overhaul all of a relative’s passwords in one holiday visit. Frankly, yours probably aren’t great, either. There is a quick password change you can make, though, that will improve Cousin Brad’s overall security: His email. Email is basically the key to our personal kingdoms. Most of our accounts get reset through our email, and there’s tons of personal information there that scammers can use to crack our other accounts or steal our identities. Particularly if you use Gmail, your email account is tied up with basically everything else you do on the internet. Having a strong email password is vital.
For advanced beginners, you can start to delve into two-factor authentication and password managers. But the top priority is just making sure you get Brad off of using “12345” as the master lock to his digital life.
Bonus Points: Passcode Protect All Devices
Smartphone passcodes are annoying, especially those six digits or more that offer the best protection by being harder to crack. You know what’s more annoying? Having your phone and then your identity stolen because a thief has access to your whole digital life. At the very least, get Brad to use his smartphone’s fingerprint sensor if it has one. He won’t have to remember any patterns or numbers at all, and you can pass it off as a very lame sort of magic trick.
Sure, volunteering as IT director for the weekend doesn’t exactly sound fun. Fair. But helping relatives with these simple tasks is actually a big contribution to their lives, and it’s a great way to divert a conversation away from Steve Bannon’s latest accomplishments.