May - June 2017

Written by Mark Evilsizor
From his column Church Tech

This week someone in my family (who shall remain nameless, but wears a gold ring I gave her) took a weekend course at a local university and unintentionally left her files, passwords, email access, and Internet browsing details on a semi-public computer. I was listening to her wonderful stories of learning and collaborating in the class, when a detail of her in-class work sparked my epiphany. She was stunned when I told her. If someone followed her at that computer they would have access to a large chunk of our lives, and be able to do things in her name. We promptly changed passwords and contacted the professor, asking that he take steps to close the open door to our online information.

This episode reminded me that most people are not by nature drawn to explore new features or the latest security practices of the computer programs they use every day. This lack of familiarity can result in unknowingly leaving the keys to your digital life available for anyone to stumble upon and misuse. Let’s take a look at how this plays out with browsers and file sharing tools.

When the first Internet browsers became widely available, Netscape and Microsoft recognized these tools had the potential to make all other technology loyalties obsolete. Netscape wanted their browser to be the one portal to all other applications regardless of the hardware or operating system used. Microsoft wanted to create a lifelong connection to Windows, so they bundled Internet Explorer as a free tag-along tool. While Microsoft won the battle with Netscape, today it is just one among several programs—like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari—that are used cross-platform on computers, smartphones, and tablets.

When you need to access web resources on a device you have not used before, the browser often invites you to sign in with an invitation that almost seems like a requirement. If you do so, recognize that you are signing in to the browser itself and will remain signed in until you sign out. Many times I have sat down to work on a media PC at church to find that someone else has signed into Chrome and unwittingly given everyone else at church access to all of the information the browser contains.

So, the first piece of guidance I would give is never sign into a browser at any computer unless it is one you own that you have created a password for, or which you have an exclusive account on, such as your machine at work. If using a friend’s computer, or a trusted but shared computer—perhaps at school—first close the tab prompting you to sign in to the browser itself, and in a fresh tab log into the website you want to visit. Then be sure to clearly log out of that website before you close the browser. On many sites if you do not explicitly log out, the next person who uses that computer can see your browser history and resume the session you thought you had concluded.

On many sites if you do not explicitly log out, the next person who uses that computer can see your browser history and resume the session you thought you had concluded.

If you are using a computer login that is yours exclusively, make use of the modern conveniences of your browser. Most will synchronize bookmarks so they are readily available on all of your devices. If you find a long article while on your phone, you can create a bookmark, and then finish reading it later on your tablet. A browser can also act as a password repository providing easy access on any trusted computer you use. For instance, you could log in at home and see your child’s grades before going to parent-teacher conferences. Or when at a meeting, you could log into your phone to ask a question about an assignment without needing to reenter your password. Since many of us have more than 100 passwords, this can be very convenient.

File sharing utilities such as Google Drive, Dropbox or One Drive are great tools to make files available everywhere. These tools encourage you to install a small piece of software onto your PC which facilitates making a copy of your files on the physical device you are using. My beloved family member did that very thing. Doing so allowed her to use the school computer to start work in class, and then finish it at home. But she also left a copy of her files on the school computer, so even if she had signed out, a copy of her files would have remained. My recommendation is to never install cloud storage software or sign into such programs on a computer you do not own. If you are using a trusted but shared computer and need access to files, visit the cloud program where your files are located and download the ones you need. When you’re done, upload the edited files back to your cloud service (and don’t forget to delete them from the machine you used).

We use browsers more than any other program, and they can do a lot of things. But they can also get us into trouble unless we’re careful. These simple tips could save you a lot of time and grief by preventing someone from following in your digital footsteps.

Mark Evilsizor has worked in Information Technology for more than 20 years. He currently serves as head of IT for the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Mo. Views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.

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