In today's paranoid and panic-stricken world, many people want ways to protect themselves against scary threats. But security is actually built into many of the gadgets we use every day — mobile phones, computers (especially those running macOS and Windows 10) and other devices. Home-security systems with tried-and-true keypads still work well and won't be hacked by a neighborhood kid or a Russian villain anytime soon.
There are many solutions that can improve an individual's security posture, but the best protection is being smart, looking twice before you click, and a heightened awareness of risks. The irony is that some security products may actually create more risk instead of less.
Many people know that laptop webcams can be hijacked to secretly take photos or record video, and an entire cottage industry has spun up to protect users from the prying eyes with webcam covers. Some companies even give away stick-on sliding covers as promotional items. But these products aren't worth paying for, unless you want to promote your cybersecurity company or insurance agency.
Worried that someone's hacked your webcam? Stick a piece of black electrical tape over it.
Now that BlackBerry's market share is almost nothing, a new crop of super-secure "dark phones" for executives, politicians and other VIPs has sprung up. There's the $800 Blackphone; the $2,000 Cryptophone; and the Solarin, which will set you back a mere $15,000. There's also the Boeing Black, which only defense or national-security officials get to use.
All of these phones run hardened versions of Android. Many of them have hardware upgrades that secure all levels of communications and data storage.
But unless you're a high-value target, you won't need any of these. An iPhone is very safe as long as you keep it fully updated and don't jailbreak it. Android phones are almost as safe if they, like Google's own Nexus or Pixel lines, receive monthly system patches and the user sticks to the Google Play Store for apps.
If you're still worried but don't want to break the bank, BlackBerry's DTEK50 is a very secure Android phone that costs only $300 unlocked. Or you could pick up a Windows Phone handset while you still can; the gorgeous, easy-to-use operating system flopped with customers, and no criminal will bother to write malware for it.
Photo: Jeremy Lips / Tom's Guide
Contactless credit cards let you pay with a wave or a tap on a payment terminal. (Look for the logo of four curved waves on the upper right corner of the card.) Biometric passports use similar short-range radio frequencies to transmit personal data to border-control guards.
Yet do you really need radio-frequency-blocking cases to stop hackers from accessing these cards or passports? Probably not.
Contactless cards have been around since 2005, but we've never heard of a criminal stealing their data. The 15 or 16 account digits that we're used to aren't what's transmitted when you tap your card, and everything is encrypted. As for biometric passports, their chips can't be read unless the passport is physically flipped open.
There's a downside to having an RF-blocking wallet. Contactless transit-card readers, such as those on the London Underground, can read your fare card if you just tap your wallet on the reader. If you have an RFID wallet, that method won't work.
Many consumer-software vendors, especially those selling antivirus or backup software, will try to upsell you to bundles that add in 5, 10 or 25 GB of cloud data storage for $20 or $40 more than the regular price. Don't buy it. Cloud-storage add-ons are like extended warranties on electronics: nice to think about, but you'll probably never use them.
If you do need cloud storage, it's much more cost-effective to pay for truly useful amounts. Ninety-nine dollars per year for a terabyte on Dropbox Plus (formerly Dropbox Pro), or $119 for the same amount in Apple's iCloud, isn't that expensive and will take a long time to fill up. Stay away from upsells that make you pay for two USB thumb drives' worth of storage.
For many years, when something went wrong on my PCs, the answer was to use CC Cleaner to clean the Windows Registry. But do we really — ever — need to clean the Registry anymore? So much is now hosted outside the Registry, or even the Windows directory (Google Chrome, I'm looking at you) that a Registry cleaner has become a relic of Windows 3.1. And off-brand Registry cleaners found online or, worse, secretly installed on your PC when you're installing something else, might actually damage your machine.
Windows 10 is a much better monitor of its own ecosystem than previous Windows versions, so you can save your dollars by not buying Registry cleaners from now on.
It's late at night, I can't sleep, and on comes a TV commercial for a PC "cleaner." For only $40, the cleaner promises to magically speed up my Windows PC, improve security, increase privacy and accelerate my browsing.
PC cleaners are a scam. They sell you services that Windows provides for free. If your machine is slow, don't buy a PC cleaner. Like dodgy Registry cleaners, they could also damage your Windows installation.
Instead, type Disk Cleanup into the start-menu search field, and run it. Then do the same with Disk Defragmenter. To clean out malware, install and run Malwarebytes Anti-Malware — it's free. Then install a robust antivirus program and make it's always updated.
If there's ever been an operating system that didn't need additional security, Apple's iOS is it. That's why almost all of the "security" apps you see in the iTunes App Store are useless. Not only are they redundant, but Apple severely limits their abilities to do anything to the OS or other apps. The only ones of any value are the web shields, which check websites you're connecting to against a list of known malicious sites.