So you got a new tech device for Christmas? Here's how to keep your info safe

Whether you are installing new security cameras or playing around with VR gaming, experts say it's important to make sure you are protecting your personal information. 

Computer scientist shares tips on securing phones, tablets, VR and doorbell cameras

Tablets and smartphones are still hot-ticket items on many wish lists. If you have new tech gadgets, experts say it's important to take steps to keep your information on them safe. (Alex Soloducha/CBC)

This story was originally published on Dec. 26, 2019.

Did you unwrap a new tech gift this holiday season? Or perhaps you gave in to your child's requests for a tablet?

Whether you are installing new security cameras or playing around with virtual reality (VR) gaming, experts say it's important to make sure you are protecting your personal information. 

We sat down with David Gerhard, a professor, researcher and the head of computer science at the University of Regina to talk about all things tech security. 

CBC: If you received a phone or tablet for Christmas, or plan to pick one up on Boxing Day, how do you keep them and your information on them safe?

Gerhard: These things sort of feel like single-person devices. So if I'm the only one using my tablet, why should I worry about having a password on it? But the thing is, if it gets stolen that password will protect not just the device but all of the accounts that are tied to it. Your tablet and phone have access to your Facebook, your Instagram and many other online services, including maybe your bank account. So if somebody steals that they can use it to impersonate you.

How do you create a password that is foolproof?

Most devices now will almost insist that you do security right. They'll ask you for a face scan or a fingerprint scan. Those are what we call biometrics. They're very secure but they're only part of the story. You need to have that plus something like a password. We call this two-factor authentication. 

Use three things: something you are, which is like a biometric, something you know, which is like a password, and something you have, which is the device itself. 

David Gefhard, head of Computer Science at the University of Regina, said a cellphone password should be paired with biometrics, like a face scan or fingerprint. (Germain Wilson/CBC )

So choosing a good password in combination with a biometric means it doesn't have to be that complicated. A few numbers or letters would do fine. If the password is all you have than it needs to be much more complicated. Sometimes we decide that it's not worth the inconvenience. It is worth the inconvenience, because it's all your stuff.

Do you have any concerns with people keeping their credit card number and passwords on their device so that they can shop at the push of a button?

No, I think that's fine. A lot of new devices will have a secure way of doing that. Apple Pay, Google Pay. These are both ways that you can use your credit card from your phone.

As long as your phone has a good password and everything then it works fine. If you decide that the password is inconvenient and you tell the phone 'I don't want to use a password' then there is a larger potential at least for somebody who steals your phone to maybe also have your credit cards as well.

Another hot tech gift that we're definitely seeing is VR. Are there concerns that people can access information through those devices? 

Well it depends on what kind of VR you're using and whether it's tied to an account. The Oculus VR systems are great and they're very popular, but Oculus is owned by Facebook and Facebook is very clear that they want to have your account. So there are features of the virtual reality that won't work unless you have tied it to your Facebook account.

Then, if somebody steals your VR they're connected to your Facebook account because it's one of these things where you don't even have to add in a password you put it on your face and it just starts working.

What kind of things can people access through that?

They can pretend to be you in virtual games. It doesn't sound like a problem, but if you play a lot of virtual games and you've built a persona of 'this is how I behave online,' you've got all your online friends and somebody steals your headset, they can pretend to be you and there isn't really any way you can tell the difference. So they can go into an online game and they can start doing stuff you wouldn't do.

Oculus, a brand behind some of the most popular VR technology, is owned by Facebook. Gefhard says this means hackers can gain access to your Facbeook account through your VR devices. (Germain Wilson/CBC)

Another hot techie item this season is security cameras, whether they're for inside or outside. How do you protect the images and videos taken in your home or yard?

This is a big concern because those video cameras will catch personal moments, especially if you have a camera that's pointed inside your house. It's recording everything you're doing so the important thing there is that you have to make sure that you trust the company that you are subscribing to.

They don't work so well unless they're running through a cloud system. Maybe you buy a camera and you sign up with an online subscription service and that service will record the video and tell you when something happens. You've got to really trust those companies because otherwise they might be selling that information to somebody else.

Are these cameras something you recommend? We've seen a lot of people stealing online orders and gifts on doorsteps. 

Yeah, a doorbell camera is great for that kind of thing. The indoor cameras can be tricky with privacy but the doorbell cameras are pointing outwards and so they're just seeing what everybody else would see.

It's nice to have a doorbell camera with a great big sign on it that says, "I have a doorbell camera. Don't steal my stuff." Because really it's about deterrent. You're trying to make sure that the person who is thinking about stealing your package off the porch sees that you have a camera. 

Are there any tech or security items that you think people should be looking on Boxing Day?

One of the neat new things is tracking fobs like the Tile fob. It's a tiny card that you can put on your keys or VR headset or whatever. Then you can track the location of that thing just like with Find My iPhone or the other services that allow you to track devices. So if those things go on sale it's a great way to secure and protect some of the devices that you may have got for Christmas.


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