Another day, another security exploit hits the wild, and another patch goes out to our devices—well, to our newer ones at least. Some are running older operating systems that are no longer supported with patches.
In those cases, the best option is to switch to a newer operating system that does receive updates and patches.
But what about devices whose operating systems, for whatever reasons, you cannot replace or upgrade? Well, your device will be less secure, and there’s no way around that. Fortunately, there are some steps you can still take to stay relatively safe.
Install Security Software
If you’re running an up-to-date operating system and have developed responsible computing habits, you’re somewhat safe even if you don’t install any extra security software. But on an older machine, it’s good to take precautions.
People who deploy malicious software like to go for easy targets, and your old device makes the list. Why spend so much time trying to find a way into phones with the latest patch updates when there are millions of devices that are still vulnerable to older exploits? On the positive side, these may also be the same exploits that security software knows to check for.
Check out our comprehensive list of the best security software. If you’re running Linux, we have a separate list to consider, though many of the browser plugins are still applicable. Then there are tools for your old smartphone or tablet.
Go Online Only When Necessary
Most threats to your device come from the internet. If you’re not connected, there’s little chance of you getting compromised unless someone sticks a USB stick with malicious software directly into your system or some other less conventional approach.
On mobile devices, including laptops, only enable Wi-Fi or cellular data when you want to do something online. This prevents someone from accessing your device while it’s merely sitting on the table or in your pocket.
Say your computer is compromised and you don’t know it. Without a connection to the internet, the worst that can happen is a degraded computer experience. Maybe your machine will be slow; maybe it will crash and stop working entirely.
As bad as these outcomes are, at least your photos, financial data, and browsing habits aren’t in someone else’s hands. Your hardware isn’t secretly part of a massive botnet.
Only Connect to Networks You Trust
Quite a few tricks involve fooling devices that are searching for available networks. Someone with malicious intent can throw up a fake Wi-Fi hotspot and steal data from connected devices.
The ability to do this doesn’t even require much technical knowledge.
Unencrypted public networks in general are full of risks, as someone could be lurking on the network watching what everyone does online. Do yourself a favor and only connect to networks that you or someone you trust can vouch for.
While you’re at it, you may want to use a virtual private network. VPNs offer your additional security and privacy by obscuring your internet usage from prying eyes. But, just like your Wi-Fi network, you also need to be able to trust your VPN.
Keep Your Apps Up-to-Date
You may not be able to upgrade your operating system, but you can update most of the programs you depend on. Many exploits don’t depend on your operating system. Instead they take advantages of weaknesses in your browser, PDF viewer, or office suite.
Keeping these programs updates can keep you safe from those types of intrusions on hardware that’s a bit behind the times. Updates are often free, but if not, or if newer versions have higher system requirements, you may be able to trade the program you’re using for a free alternative.
Don’t Go Near Sketchy Sites
I can’t tell you what parameters make something a sketchy site. This is something you only learn after time spend learning and navigating the web. There’s a certain number of flashy banner ads, pop-up notifications, and animated images that a site with any self respect wouldn’t dare add.
Porn sites are a particular risky breed. If you’re paying for adult videos, you’re probably fine. You’re engaging with someone with a business reputation to uphold. But many free sites distribute infected video files or dangerous ads that compromise machines by the thousands.
Approach links on social networks and in emails with the same skepticism. Phishing is one of the more common ways people find their accounts or machines compromised these days.
Avoid Free Versions of Paid Products
You may be able to find anything on the web for free, but that doesn’t mean you should. if a game, music album, or movie typically costs money but you can find it on some website without paying, you’re taking a big risk.
You’re also stealing.
This is one prominent way viruses, malware, and botnets spread. People attach dangerous code to goodies that they know thousands of people will want, enabling them to infect the widest number of machines.
There’s also a strong chance that the site you’re getting this free version from would qualify as sketchy. Reread the section above and count the number of popups you had to click through before beginning the download.
Only Download From Vetted Sources
On smartphones and tablets, this means getting your software from an app store. It doesn’t have to be the one pre-installed. While the Play Store is pretty safe on Android, so is the Amazon Appstore and some alternatives such as F-Droid.
That said, don’t download any app just because you’re getting it from a relatively safe space. Some malicious software has managed to slip through Google’s filters in the past. The same is true for Apple.
Downloading a program on an old PC? Again, avoid those spammy sites. If you’re unsure which website is the safest way to download a program, try reading a review from a major source and follow the link they provide.
You Don’t Have to Replace Your Device Right Away
Security is one big reason to keep up with the latest devices.
But that also means you’re never free from the endless cycle of hardware purchases and upgrades. If companies know they can withhold security updates in order to get you to buy more of their products, that’s what they’re incentivized to do.
Holding on to older hardware for as long as possible is good for your budget and a less wasteful way to manage what we buy. Unfortunately, doing so does come with risk. Still, by taking these precautions and acting responsibly, you need not replace your devices just yet.