How to Keep Data on Your Devices Safe

Illustration of a person keeping her phone chained and locked.

The digital devices you use for personal and professional purposes have a lot of your data on them. Your laptop, mobile phone, tablet, external hard drive, and all the USB memory sticks lying around your place store data in the form of text documents, images, videos, sounds, etc. These devices might even still have on them all those files you think you have deleted.

What happens if someone looks through your files when you are not around? What if someone steals a device with sensitive personal or professional files on it? What if you lose such a device? What if the device malfunctions and you lose all of your valuable information? Follow these personal data hygiene tips to secure your most valuable data.

1. Secure your devices physically

This might sound too obvious but one of the most important things you can do to protect your digital data is to take care of the physical security of your devices. You may lose a laptop, mobile phone, tablet or external memory storage device, or a device can be stolen from you. If this happens, those who find your device in their possession can access sensitive files or personally identifiable information you have stored on the device.

So, keep your devices in a safe and secure place when you don’t use them. Keep track of all the external storage devices you use, including USB memory sticks, CDs and DVDs, and keep them under a lock and key. Never leave your devices unattended in a place where they can be stolen. Consider leaving your devices at home when you travel or visit places where you can be asked to surrender digital devices, such as airports, government offices, and embassies. If you often use a laptop in a semi-public place such as school, coworking space or cafe, consider buying a Kensington cable.

2. Password protect your devices

Protecting your digital devices with strong passwords helps ensure that no one will poke around your files when you leave devices unattended. It also offers some protection (albeit imperfect) for your data when you lose a device or someone steals it.

Enable an automatic screen lock on all your devices after a brief period of inactivity. Make sure you know how to lock the screen on your device manually and remember to do this every time you step away from the device.

3. Encrypt sensitive files

If you lose your device or someone steals it, they can access all the sensitive files or personal information you have stored on the device. The best way to secure sensitive data on your devices is to use encryption. Encryption makes all the data on a device completely unreadable. Encrypted data can only be read by the person who has the password or decryption key.

Follow these directions to set up encryption on Windows 10 and Mac devices.

4. Backup your data

Having someone poking around your files is not the only risk you face if one of your devices is lost or stolen. You also risk losing access to important files some of which you would never be able to replace. You can also lose data if a device malfunctions or becomes encrypted as a result of a ransomware attack.

The best way to guarantee that you will never lose important files is to backup your data, automatically or on a frequent and regular basis. Follow these directions to set up automatic data backup on Windows 10 and Mac devices.

5. Use antivirus software and keep your system up to date

A good antivirus program will protect your devices from malware that can steal, damage or destroy your data. Make sure you use a licensed antivirus program. If you are a Windows user, your operating system comes with an effective built-in antivirus tool, Microsoft Defender.

You should also make sure that your antivirus software and operating system are up to date. It is best to set this software to update automatically.

6. Delete files securely

Deleting files on a computer, mobile device or external data storage device does not really make the files disappear. The data stays on the device and can be recovered. The only way to ensure that your files are deleted permanently is to use special software that overwrites the deleted data with random code. If you backup your data (as you should be), remember that in addition to deleting sensitive files from your devices, you should also delete the same files from your backups.

Follow these directions to install and run BleachBit, a free and open-source tool that you can use to remove data from traditional hard drives securely and permanently. Unfortunately, if you use SSD (also known as flash) storage devices, it is not always possible to remove all traces of deleted data permanently.

7. Securely dispose of old devices

Before selling, recycling or throwing away an old computer, mobile device or any other data storage device, make sure that you do not leave any personal or confidential information on it. Scrub the device clean by using a reliable tool for secure and permanent data removal, and reset it to factory settings.

If you are getting rid of old CDs, DVDs, SSD storage devices, USB memory sticks or any other data storage devices, consider smashing them with a hammer or using any other tools to destroy them physically.

8. Don’t share confidential data

The best way to secure your sensitive or confidential data is not to share it with anyone. When you share digital files with others, you are no longer in full control of the security of that data.

If you share sensitive or confidential data online, follow these instructions to do so in a safe and secure way.