Data security

We all deal with data — lots of data. At home, that data includes credit card numbers, insurance policies, tax returns and bank statements. At MacEwan, we deal with data like students’ personal, financial and academic records, and confidential, potentially sensitive information about employees and the university’s operations.

In the wrong hands, that information could bring about devastating consequences to you personally and to the university.

There are several things you can do to lower your risk of having your data compromised.

Lock down your computer

  • Your computers at work and at home should require a user log in every time they start up or are unlocked. You should also set your computers to automatically lock after a certain period of idleness.

  • Whenever you step away from your computer at work, log out to protect it from being accessed by unauthorized users

  • Remove any sensitive data from your work laptop or computer. In fact, don’t store any kind of sensitive information on your local hard drive. It’s best practice to use the university’s network infrastructure to store your data: it’s secure and it’s backed up daily.

  • Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN client is a piece of software on your computer that lets you log in to the MacEwan Network using your university credentials. Your computer exchanges your credentials with the MacEwan server and creates a secure, encrypted Internet communication. You can get more information and download MacEwan VPN software on the MacEwan VPN page.

  • You can also set up your own VPN service to access your secure home network from your personal laptop while you are not at home.

Secure your devices

One of the biggest risks to data security is the loss or theft of a device (smart phone, tablet or laptop) that does not have an access password or pin. Without a password, anyone who steals or finds a device has an open door to your data.

There are some very simple precautions you can take to secure the devices you use at home and at work.

  • Install a pin or passcode on all your devices. See our tips for creating passwords

  • Attach a sticker with your contact information to the device

  • When you are not using your device, lock it up

Be careful when using public wi-fi

Free wireless is everywhere, but proceed with caution. Public wi-fi networks are also open to scammers and cybercriminals who can and do use eavesdropping software to monitor your online activity to steal login details and other information.

Never assume that a public wi-fi network is safe to use just because it has a password — this includes those at airports or hotels.

Tips to lower the risk of having your data compromised through public wi-fi:

  • Turn off your wi-fi if you’re not actively using the Internet

  • Don’t use public wi-fi to visit sites that require you to log in with a username and password (banks, social networks, webmail). Wait until you’re on a secure, private network.

  • Watch out for shoulder surfers. If your laptop is open in a public space, it’s easy for someone to see exactly what you are doing. Look around to make sure no “shoulder surfers” are watching what you type.

  • Use a VPN (see “Lock down your computer,” above)

  • Turn off sharing. Your home network might let you share files, access printers, or allow other computers to log in to your computer. Turn these things off when you’re on a public network.

  • Turn on your computer’s firewall. Most operating systems include a variation of firewall software that is designed to block outside access to your system. While they aren’t a foolproof defense, it’s worth activating them.

  • Activating a Windows firewall

  • Activating a Mac firewall

Use HTTPS and SSL Whenever Possible

Regular web site connections over HTTP exchange lots of plain text over the wireless network you're connected to, and someone with the right skills and bad intent can sniff out that traffic very easily. It's not that big of a deal when the text is some search terms you entered at Lifehacker, but it is a big deal when it's the password to your email account. Using HTTPS (for visiting web sites) or enabling SSL (when using applications that access the internet, such as an email client) encrypts the data passed back and forth between your computer and that web server and keep it away from prying eyes.

Why Should I Care About HTTPS on Facebook (or Other Web Sites)?

Many sites—including Facebook, Gmail, and others—will do it automatically, but keep an eye on the address bar and make sure the "s" in "https" is always there when you're exchanging sensitive information. If it disappears, you should log out immediately. Other sites will default to HTTP connections, but support HTTPS if you manually type it in.

Note that if the sensitive browsing can wait—especially if it's something very sensitive like banking or credit card info—you should just wait to do that sensitive browsing at home. There's no reason to risk more than you have to.

If you access your email from a desktop client such as Outlook or Apple Mail, You'll want to make sure that your accounts are SSL encrypted in their settings. If not, people could not only theoretically read your emails, but also get your usernames, passwords, or anything else they wanted. You'll need to make sure your domain supports it, and sometimes the setup might require different settings or ports—it's not just a matter of checking the "use SSL" box—so check your email account's help page for more details. If it doesn't support SSL, make sure you quit the application when you're on a public network.

Consider Using a Virtual Private Network

Unfortunately, not all sites offer SSL encryption. Other search engines and email providers may still be vulnerable to people watching your activity, so if you use one of these sites frequently (or really just want the extra protection), you may want to try using a VPN, or virtual private network. These services let you route all your activity through a separate secure, private network, thus giving you the security of a private network even though you're on a public one.

Information on MacEwan's VPN is on Tech Support's VPN page.

Turn Wi-Fi Off When You Aren't Using It

If you want to guarantee your security and you're not actively using the internet, simply turn off your Wi-Fi. This is extremely easy in both Windows and OS X. In Windows, you can just right-click on the wireless icon in the taskbar to turn it off. On a Mac, just click the Wi-Fi icon in the menu bar and select the turn off AirPort option. Again, this isn't all that useful if you need the internet, but when you're not actively using it, it's not a bad idea to just turn it off for the time being. The longer you stay connected, the longer people have to notice you're there and start snooping around.

How to Automate Your Public Wi-Fi Security Settings

Obviously, you don't want to have to manually adjust all of these settings every single time you go back and forth between the coffee shop and your secure home network. Luckily, there are a few ways to automate the process so you automatically get extra protection when connected to a public Wi-Fi network.

On Windows

When you first connect to any given network on Windows, you'll be asked whether you're connecting to a network at your home, work, or if it's public. Each of these choices will flip the switch on a preset list of settings. The public setting, naturally, will give you the most security. You can customize what each of the presets entails by opening your Control Panel and navigating to Network and Sharing Center > Advanced Sharing Settings. From there, you can turn network discovery, file sharing, public folder sharing, media streaming, and other options on or off for the different profiles.