You want to share files over the Internet. At the same time, you want to stay safe. How do you do both? It seems like a contradiction in terms. After all, with the NSA watching everyone, and many companies unable to resist the long arm of the government, many individuals just don’t feel safe putting their private stuff out there anymore. Even when you don’t worry about prying government eyes, you have to contend with the ever-present threat of criminals trying to hack into your computer and implant malicious code – even ransomware. Here’s how to protect yourself.
One of the best ways to protect yourself, legally, is to stay legal. In other words, don’t download illegal content that’s copyright-protected and not approved for free sharing. While some sites scared off a lot of folks, illegal pirating still sometimes happens in the P2P space.
But, there’s tons of free content out there licensed under the Creative Commons (or some other liberal licensing scheme) that’s actually pretty good. For example, the team that provides the Vuze bittorrent client are fully focused on providing their users with completely free and legal content. If you’re using the software to download files from sites like Archive.org, then you’re going to come across some really great stuff.
On the other hand, if you’re the type that frequents torrent sites that allow illegal content to be shared and distributed, then you’re pretty much on your own. Even with the best privacy solutions, you cannot escape your ISP (which can see everything you download), and right-holders. And you may be doing a disservice to the authors of those works.
Let’s say that you’re staying legal, but you still want additional privacy and anonymity. One solution is to use a proxy or a VPN. These are ways to mask your identity. A proxy is a server that “stands” between you and another computer. If someone tries to find you on the web, and you’re behind a proxy, they’ll only be able to interact with the proxy, not you.
A VPN is a virtual private network and acts as a shield between you and the public internet. Because it’s virtual, you still get the flexibility of the public internet. But, you also gain important privacy features too.
The key to retaining privacy when using either of these two things is to make sure that your provider does not keep logs on your downloading. If they do, then obviously that’s not a good sign.
Use Private Trackers
Using private trackers, and joining private communities, is yet another way to stay safe. Trackers are servers that help coordinate the download process. While they do not necessarily store information about you, they can.
Getting around the tracker issue is not so difficult though. Just join a private community. Private communities often have strict rules against pirated content and corrupted files. While there’s no guarantee that you won’t come across any of this stuff in a private community, your risks are dramatically reduced by staying private.
Upgrade Your Antivirus Software
Without a doubt, one of the best measures you can take to keep yourself safe is to upgrade your anti-virus software. If you don’t have anti-virus software yet, well then this is step number one. Get yourself something good, like Avast, Norton, or Kaspersky or even the native antivirus that comes with your Windows OS. If you’re a Mac user, you may not need anti-virus software yet, but it’s always a good idea to have something.
Antivirus and anti-malware software can help protect you from threats like ransomware – software that encrypts parts of your hard drive or important the files on it and then asks you to pay money to have those files decrypted. Ransomware is especially debilitating for individuals because there’s really no alternative but to pay the thief for your files.
Antivirus and anti-malware programs can also scan files you download for other malicious code. If found, these files can be quarantined. Sometimes, it’s not even a malicious user that’s the problem, but rather a Mac user that’s carrying a virus he or she doesn’t even know about (because many viruses are designed for windows users).
Many Mac users pass on viruses that don’t affect their machines – they do this unknowingly because the virus cannot harm their computer. But, it can harm yours if you’re a PC user.
Keep Your Firewall Up
Just because you’re sharing files on the Internet, doesn’t mean you need to lower your defenses. Most of the time, you’ll be sharing files with people you hardly know. Make sure your firewall is turned on, that you have both a software firewall and a hardware-driven firewall (i.e. a router that’s properly configured).
Colleen Cruz is a computer networking whiz. With a mind for technical innovation, she often blogs about common questions and concerns for data management and file sharing for today’s networking options.