Your digital self controls your life. Lose your password, and you're locked out of a potentially important email or bank account. It's even worse if you don't have any recovery systems set up. But what's worse is if you are hacked. Your digital self, ripped away. Your social media accounts, your connection to friends, family, and others, disappearing in an instant. However, there are proactive measures you can take.
The first thing you can do is ensure you have strong passwords. Try entering your most commonly used passwords into Security.org's tool, and see how long it takes to crack your password. According to a 2021 Statista survey, 64% of U.S. respondents had passwords 8–11 characters. Assuming a mix of numbers, uppercase and lowercase letters, an 11-character password will take ten months to crack.
The easiest way to secure your password is to get a password manager. I recommend against using Google's password manager, given that it's built into your browser, so if your browser is compromised, there goes your passwords. If you use an iOS/iPadOS or Safari on macOS, Apple has a password manager built-in that's secured by end-to-end encryption, as well as encrypted locally by the onboard chips until the password is needed. Alternatively, if you use multiple platforms, or prefer not to use Apple's offering, there's Bitwarden, 1Password, and Dashlane to name a few. Definitely don't use LastPass, their security has been well covered in the media.
If you choose to use a third-party password manager, make sure to set a strong password for that. Bitwarden created a password and passphrase generator that you can use to create a master password.
No matter what password manager you use, the first step is to add all your existing passwords to it. Whenever you create a new account, generate a strong password using the tool. I recommend at least 20 characters using a mix of numbers, uppercase and lowercase letters, and four or more symbols. Go through all your passwords and strengthen them by changing your passwords.
The number one rule when it comes to passwords is do not reuse them. Many services, including 500px, Adobe, Audi, Bitly, and many others, have been breached, resulting in passwords, emails, and other sensitive information being stolen. A wonderful, free service called Have I Been Pwned (HIBP), created by security researcher Troy Hunt and used by companies and governments around the world, shows users which of their accounts have been breached, and can also inform them as soon as a breach is published. I highly recommend putting your emails into the service to check if any associated accounts have been breached, and if they have, change the passwords. The other thing I highly recommend is signing up for HIBP notifications on all your emails. This will allow you to know almost immediately if your account was leaked in a breach.
Multi-factor authentication, also known as two-factor authentication, 2FA, or MFA, is where a user is required to enter two or more verification methods before authentication can proceed. You should enable multi-factor authentication on all your accounts, especially for those accounts that secure personal identifiable information (PII). Some key accounts that should absolutely be secured, even if you don't use MFA on any other service, include your financial accounts (including revenue agencies like the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, the Canada Revenue Agency, AFIP, etc.), your government accounts (e.g. Login.gov, Singpass, etc.), and your healthcare accounts (e.g. insurance, patient portals (like MyChart), etc.).
Don't just take my word for it. Many government agencies, including, but certainly not limited to, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the UK National Cyber Security Centre, and the Australian Cyber Security Centre, recommend MFA.
When you enable MFA, try to avoid text messages, phone calls, and email as authentication methods. Text messages and phone calls are susceptible to a SIM swap scam, which is when a malicious person contacts a mobile service provider to change the SIM which has phone calls and text messages routed to it. For more information on SIM swap scams, check out the Wikipedia page or this Norton article.
The best method to use is FIDO2, also known as WebAuthn. FIDO2 uses physical security keys, such as Yubico's YubiKey series or Google's Titan keys, or mobile devices. These devices make up phishing-resistant MFA. This name was given because the token that is generated for MFA will not work with any site other than the site it was registered with. It's recommended to register at least two keys per account in case you lose one. Some, like Apple, require at least two keys. The U.S. federal government requires phishing-resistant MFA through the Federal Zero Trust Strategy. The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is recommending phishing-resistant MFA through the draft version of SP 800-63-4 (Digital Identity Guidelines). Many companies, including Cloudflare and Figma, have mandated FIDO2 security keys because they are phishing-resistant.
In the event that the site doesn't offer FIDO2 or you don't have a FIDO2-capable device, the other recommended method is time-based one-time password (TOTP), popularized by Google Authenticator. Nowadays, there are countless apps that can generate TOTP, including iOS/iPadOS' built-in authenticator (I personally only recommend using it if you only use iOS/iPadOS and Safari on macOS), Authy (a cross-platform synced authenticator), and Google Authenticator. I personally use Authenticator Pro (an open-source authenticator for Android) on my Android devices, and OTP Auth on my iOS devices. Most password managers offer to store TOTP keys in their vaults for you, but that means that all your eggs are in one basket.
I try to avoid proprietary MFA solutions like Symantec VIP, which a lot of U.S. financial institutions love. Instead, and only for those services, I use SMS MFA. One big problem with SMS MFA is if you travel, you don't necessarily have access to your texts. To prevent losing access to those services that use SMS, you could use a service like Google Voice as the phone number for MFA codes.
If you're curious about what MFA options a service offers, check out 2FA Directory, a directory of sites that support, and don't support, MFA. If a service is not there, add it by following our contribution guide.
Reviewing Account Access
Have you ever been asked to sign in with Google, Twitter, Apple, Facebook, or some other social platform? When you do that, those platforms share some data. For example, with Google, it might be allowing an app to access your Google Drive to store configuration. Or with Twitter, an app may want the ability to view Tweets that you've posted and accounts you follow. It's a good practice to periodically go through your platform's security dashboards to review what apps have access to what. The table below contains links to the dashboards of the most common platforms. If you don't recognize an app or device linked to your account, remove it.
In addition to checking what apps are linked to your account, make sure to review what devices are currently logged in to your account.
|Sign-In and Security (under Sign in with Apple)
|Apps and Websites
|Where you're logged in
|Apps with access to your account
If you're in the European Economic Area, Canada, the U.S. states of California, Colorado, Utah, Virginia, or another area that has comprehensive data privacy legislation, you have a few rights. EEA residents are protected by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), Canadian residents are protected by the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), California residents are covered by the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA), and so on, so forth. These regulations give individuals the right to know what personal information an entity collects, the right to delete personal information collected, the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information, and the right to not be discriminated against for exercising your rights.
A full list of rights can be found by clicking on the corresponding legislation from the following non-exhaustive list of links: GDPR (EEA), PIPEDA (Canada), CCPA/CPRA (California), CPA (Colorado), UCPA (Utah), and VCDPA (Virginia).
If you have any improvements to any of my articles or notes, please submit a pull request.
Thank you for reading!
PII is defined as "information that can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity" (source: U.S. General Services Administration). Some examples of PII include your full name, your national ID number/Social Security Number/your country's equivalent, financial account numbers (including credit and debit card numbers), address, phone number, and more. A more comprehensive list can be found on Matomo Analytics's website. ↩︎
NIST's Digital Identity Guidelines provides technical requirements for U.S. federal agencies implementing account services (source: NIST). While intended for federal agencies, many companies follow the guidelines or use them as a guideline. ↩︎
Full disclosure: I am a maintainer of the site ↩︎
If an app is asking to access your entire Google Drive, check if it really needs that permission. For example, a game requesting that permission probably doesn't need that, and is using it for promotional or other purposes. Google offers developers a scoped permission that limits an app's access to a dedicated folder created just for them in your Google Drive. You might see this permission as "View and manage its own configuration in your Google Drive", or something similar. ↩︎
The definition of an entity depends on the legislation. For example, under the GDPR, entities refer to "a company or entity which processes personal data as part of the activities of one of its branches established in the EU, regardless of where the data is processed; or a company established outside the EU and is offering goods/services (paid or for free) or is monitoring the behaviour of individuals in the EU" (source: Who does the data protection law apply to?). For another example, under the PIPEDA, entities are defined as "private-sector organizations across Canada that collect, use or disclose personal information in the course of a commercial activity" (source: PIPEDA in brief). For one last example, under the CCPA/CPRA, an entity is defined as a for-profit business that meets any of the following: have a gross annual revenue of over $25 million; buy, sell, or share the personal information of 100,000 or more California residents, households, or devices; or derive 50% or more of their annual revenue from selling California residents’ personal information (source: Cal Civ. Code § 1798.140(d)). ↩︎