Since the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, millions of employees worldwide have found themselves spending some or all of their workweek logging in from home or another remote location. Even as vaccine rollouts and declining cases have enabled state and local governments to lift lockdowns and other restrictions, many businesses have opted to reduce their overhead costs by permitting employees to continue working remotely.
Working from home offers undeniable benefits, including reduced stress, a more relaxed dress code and additional flexibility. But maintaining a remote workforce is not without its risks: Both businesses and their employees face increased privacy and security threats when logging in from a nontraditional location. Fortunately, these risks can be managed effectively by following a few basic precautions and remaining vigilant to potential cybersecurity threats.
Online Privacy Tips For The Remote Worker
The following 10 online privacy tips for working from home in 2021 can help you protect both your personal data and your employer’s intellectual property and maintain a successful and secure remote office environment.
Make sure your passwords are strong and secure
This is the easiest and most familiar suggestion for enhancing online privacy and security, and yet too many of us develop password fatigue and rely on a single, easy-to-remember password (or some minor variation of it) across multiple sites and devices. When working from home, it’s more important than ever to follow this advice.
Ensure that all of your devices are password-protected, and use strong, unique passwords that combine numbers, symbols, capital letters and lower-case letters. A password-managing tool can help you maintain security without needing to memorize dozens of lengthy, constantly-changing passwords, and do wonders for your online privacy.
Keep antivirus and internet security software up-to-date
It should go without saying that any computer you use regularly—whether it’s your personal computer or one owned by your company—should be loaded with the most up-to-date version of a robust antivirus and internet security software program. Cyberhackers are constantly searching for vulnerabilities in wireless networks and commercial VPNs, and the recent increase in employees working remotely has vastly increased their list of potential targets.
At just a few dollars a month per device, comprehensive antivirus suites are an inexpensive way to safeguard computers and their contents from the costly effects of ransomware attacks, malware, spyware, viruses, trojans and worms. Quality antivirus suites also deliver automatic updates to your computer and online privacy, so you’re never left exposed to bad actors in the digital world.
Make work devices off-limits to family members
When you’re working remotely, whether from home or another location, your computer and other electronic devices become more accessible to others. And while it’s unlikely that your family members would intentionally put your online security at risk, they may not know how to take stringent precautions to protect sensitive files and proprietary business data.
Be sure all your devices are password-protected, and always log out or lock your computer if you leave it unattended for any length of time. This will do wonders for your online privacy.
Keep your webcam covered when not in use
Over the past year, videoconferencing tools like Zoom, GoToMeeting and Teams have largely replaced in-person meetings, group huddles and conferences. Webcams make these connections possible, but they also offer skilled hackers an entry point into your personal files.
When you aren’t actively engaged in an event that requires the use of your computer’s webcam, you should cover it with a sliding cover designed specifically for webcams, a piece of opaque tape or some other material. If you have an external webcam, always unplug it when not in use.
You should also use the “blur background” or another background filter when participating in video conferences to prevent unwanted viewers from getting a glimpse inside your home, which could inadvertently reveal sensitive health or other personal information, sabotaging your own online privacy.
Log in securely with a VPN
Using a VPN—Virtual Private Network—can protect you from hackers, trackers and even your internet service provider by routing your online activity through an encrypted digital tunnel, enabling you to keep passwords, browsing history, personal data and other information safe.
These services typically cost $5 to $15 per month depending on the length of your subscription and include a robust set of security features like full-disk encryption and secure email clients. We at Removaly highly recommend both NordVPN and ExpressVPN for the most robust online privacy VPN.
Tighten up your home wireless network
There are several steps you can take to defend your home wireless network against intrusion and online privacy threats while working from home:
- If you haven’t already, change the default password that came with your router. These preset passwords tend to be weak and are often used on multiple routers, making them easier to breach. Select a complex password with at least 16 letters, numbers and special characters included.
- Update your router’s settings to enable encryption using WPA2, which is the strongest security method.
- Limit access to your wireless network to specific devices via their MAC addresses; unfamiliar devices will be unable to connect.
- Turn off network name broadcasting so your wireless network isn’t visible to unwelcome users.
- Keep your router’s firmware up-to-date by checking its settings page regularly; software updates and patches may be available to address any security gaps.
Ensure encryption is enabled on device hard drives
Virtually all digital devices running on Android, iOS, macOS and Windows platforms offer a built-in encryption function that protects sensitive data and your online privacy if the device is stolen or otherwise compromised.
Make sure this encryption feature is enabled on all computers, phones and tablets; write down your recovery codes; and store codes in a secure location.
Prevent videoconferencing pitfalls
Hackers have responded quickly to the increased use of videoconferencing platforms by remote workforces, developing multiple schemes for infiltrating these systems to access private information.
Their techniques include sending malware-laced links to Zoom meetings to random company email addresses; logging into unsecured video conferences to gain inside information or simply disrupt the meeting; creating fake sign-on forms to harvest employees’ corporate credentials; and more.
The following steps can help you maintain the security of your virtual gatherings and protect your online privacy:
- Before clicking on a link to join a meeting, verify its legitimacy by checking the source from which it originated. Invitations sent via text message, instant messaging platforms or unfamiliar email addresses may have come from spammers or scammers.
- If you’re the one organizing a meeting, take advantage of all privacy and security controls in the platform’s settings. Require all attendees to enter a password; disable settings that allow attendees to join the meeting before the host or share their screens; and use digital waiting rooms to allow for the verification of each attendee before they are admitted into the virtual meeting space.
Maintain separation between the professional and the personal
If you’ve been working from home for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that the line between your personal and professional lives has gotten extremely blurry (or perhaps disappeared altogether). It can be an ongoing struggle to balance the benefits of working in pajamas with the stresses of being on-call 24 hours a day, but there are a few hard boundaries you need to set to maintain data security on behalf of yourself and your employer.
- Don’t use your work computer for activities you wouldn’t do if you were still in your physical office, and avoid storing personal files or data on your work computer.
- Remember that you have no expectation of privacy on devices owned by your employer. In many cases, employers have increased their scrutiny of remote employees’ digital activity during the pandemic, so it’s entirely possible that your online behavior is being tracked.
- Avoid sharing sensitive, proprietary or personal information via shared corporate or cloud-based platforms, including instant messaging and collaborative tools. Sending an email or a text message is slightly more secure; a phone call is the most secure communication method of all.
- So-called “private” browser windows are never entirely private; even if your browsing history isn’t being tracked by an app or website, that data is still logged in the device’s operating system and remains accessible to your employer and potentially other parties as well.
- Avoid using public Wi-Fi networks, especially for sensitive personal or professional communications.
Look for red flags in your inbox
Email phishing and other scams have become ubiquitous at both the personal and professional levels, and scammers are increasingly savvy at creating layouts and content that closely mimic the real thing. When we open emails on autopilot, we can miss tiny clues that reveal a message’s lack of authenticity. Before you open an email or click on a link from an unfamiliar sender, check for the following red flags that can indicate a phishing attempt:
- Use of generic greetings instead of your name
- Requests for private data such as login credentials or contact information; legitimate companies will never ask you to click on a link to verify your identity.
- Labels such as “urgent” or “high-priority”
- Text containing multiple misspelled words or grammatical errors, or whose tone doesn’t match the purported sender
- Spoofed links, which can be revealed by hovering over the links without clicking on them
If your gut tells you an email is fake, or if it just doesn’t “look right,” contact your company’s IT department. This is one place where it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Final Thoughts on Online Privacy While Working From Home in 2021
Whether it’s on a short-term, long-term or permanent basis, working from home is the “new normal” for millions of employees across the globe. By taking these 10 powerful steps to safeguard online privacy in our remote workspace, we can ensure the time we spend working from home in 2021 delivers net benefits both to our employers and ourselves.