Here’s everything you should do to up your security before next year

Or help a relative who's less tech savvy get caught up.

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Be honest: How many times this year have you skipped or scrolled past a much-needed update? Maybe you just wanted to log into Twitter, er, X without setting up multifactor authentication. Putting off these minor inconveniences adds up, and it could lead to an insecure tech setup just waiting to be exploited by an attacker.

So, now you're probably spending a few days sleeping in your childhood bed, and wondering when Uncle Dave will stop talking to you about buying gold stocks. There's never been a better time to take care of the less-than-riveting admin work of locking down your digital life. Here's a quick holiday checklist you and your loved ones (including Dave) can spend an hour doing during your holiday downtime to set up for a more secure year.

Update all your apps and devices

For the most current patches and options, you’ll need to start this security check up by updating all your devices and apps. The companies behind the tech have already done a lot of the work to keep you safe, but it’s your job to make sure that you’re taking full advantage of those updates. I’d recommend starting with operating system updates then apps second because there’s usually some new features reliant on the latest OS within other software. While you’re there, set up automatic updates so that you don’t have to worry about doing this manually in the future.

An attendee interacts with a display at the 23andMe booth at the RootsTech annual genealogical event in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., February 28, 2019.  REUTERS/George Frey
REUTERS / Reuters

Sign up for or update your password manager

Strong passwords are your first line of defense to keep your accounts safe, but they’re almost impossible to memorize and keep track of. Download a password manager to store this information for you, so that your passwords can be unguessable gibberish that you’ll actually use. Long term, it’s important to change these passwords every 90 days or so, and never to repeat across accounts. A password manager will help remind you of that, and even generate new password ideas for you. Unique and regularly-changing passwords help prevent attacks like credential stuffing, as we’ve seen make headlines in the recent 23andMe data breach.

Make sure you’re using MFA or, ideally, passkeys

Strong passwords are important, but it's well-known that they aren’t enough to keep unauthorized actors out of your account. Most people are familiar with using a text message code to grant access to an account. If you’re taking time out of your day to set this up, however, I would recommend using a third-party authenticator app or a hardware key for more secure options. Or, for companies that have switched to allowing passkeys at login, that’s usually your best bet.

This will be one of the more tedious parts of the checklist, so if you can’t sit down and knock out your major logins now, at least push yourself to make these changes each time you log into a website over the next couple of weeks. Being stuck with family for the holiday might not be your preferred opportunity to make this change, but there's sure to be an upcoming major snowstorm or bout seasonal depression just screaming to be harnessed for your technological well-being.

Consider a VPN, or at least a more secure browser

A strong VPN will keep your web browsing private. Whether it’s free or paid for, defaulting to using a VPN adds an extra layer of security to the work you’re doing online. Most have options to use it across different devices, or to run automatically on startup so that you can set it up once and forget about it. I would also recommend switching over to a secure browser like Tor that runs on a privacy-first platform for more sensitive online matters. Of course there’s a catch: VPNs and Tor can both slow down your browsing, or break certain website features. Updates to the services have helped over time, but even if you use it for just a portion of web browsing, some protection is better than none.

A blue glass globe-shaped paperweight rests on print headlines covering  aspects of Internet and computer-related crime.
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Get up to date on the latest hacks and attack vectors

Keeping up with security news will help you determine what accounts need special attention versus where you can go on autopilot. Once you know whether a breach may have occurred or a password has been leaked, you can quickly make changes to accommodate. Websites already exist to see if you’ve been in a data breach, and most companies have an obligation to tell you if they’ve been impacted. When you also stay up to date on the latest scams and attacks, you know what red flags to look out for in your own inbox to stay proactive.

Tell brokers to stop selling your data

It’s surprisingly easy to stop companies from trading your privacy for cash. On top of getting in the habit of not sharing your cookies or granting location data, you can opt out of working with the top three major data brokers. Axiom, Oracle and Epsilon all have slightly different variations of the same form to fill out so that information like your home address and relatives’ names aren’t being sold for profit. This is a good start to getting your online privacy back, however, it can be more of a headache than just one opt out form.

You have to do this frequently to make sure your information hasn’t been readded to any of the broker sites, and if your information has already been sold to marketing companies, it’s too late to undo it. There are subscription service sites that can help track and continuously delete whatever information pops up for you, but starting with just Axiom, Oracle and Epsilon will still be a free, worthwhile step toward more privacy.

A Samsung rugged SSD

Back up everything

Get an external hard drive or connect to the cloud and keep all of your data backed up. Do this regularly, so that even if your device quits or gets ransomed by an attacker, you aren't completely screwed. I’d recommend opting for something that can be set up automatically, so that you don’t have to keep constant track of it. That could look like spending the 99 cents per month on extra iCloud storage (or Google Drive or another in-house cloud tool) so that your phone gets backed up each night while you’re asleep. Windows and Mac also both do auto updates to an external drive on desktop, so you can set it and forget it.

Alternatively, you could install backup software onto a device so that it’s taken care of by a third party, but that may be less intuitive to set up. Just don’t forget to clean up your data storage every once in a while, too, so that you’re not holding onto useless screenshots or pictures of your ex from years ago that are taking up valuable space.

Make a plan to check in on your security settings more frequently

It’s overwhelming to play catch up. Going through a list like this can seem intimidating if you haven’t worried about it before. If you set up automatic updates and backups, it’ll take some of those repeat tasks off your plate. But since you’ll already, hopefully, be setting new passwords once a quarter, you can do a quick check up on your other security measures too. See if you’ve been a victim of a breach or identity theft, keep telling data brokers to get their hands off your information and find out if new VPNs or other software has been released that could make your security setup more seamless. Making it a part of the routine is much easier than annual sprees, and can help you catch a cybersecurity problem before it becomes unmanageable.