Your identity at stake - Local experts reveal how to keep your privacy online

Courier illustration

Courier illustration

PRESCOTT, Arizona - So you heard the National Security Agency (NSA) has the phone records and emails of millions of ordinary Americans?

You probably read the story last week that Russian hackers apparently stole a billion -billion - passwords.

And, if you've been following the news, surely you know that it's not just computers that are vulnerable to attacks, that the phones that many of us use as computers can also be hacked and infiltrated by those with bad intent.

But before you shred your SIM card, incinerate your hard drive and tin foil your home, consider that experts say it is relatively easy to protect your computers and phones.

"Good cyber hygiene."

That's the term used by Jon C. Haass, associate professor of Cyber Intelligence and Security at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's College of Security and Intelligence.

His number one piece of advice: "Use passwords that are not repeated. Have a method for either remembering them or storing them."

Haass and other experts will tell you the best way to protect the information you may have stored on a computer and/or mobile device is to use multiple passwords, and change them.

Often.

"Go in and change them every so often," said Heather Eddolls, of Prescott/Prescott Valley's PC Works Computer Repair.

She suggests making the passwords fairly complex. "Like what banking sites do - use caps, letters and numbers."

It is advised to not do what many of us have found routine: Use the same password for multiple accounts. Doing so makes things easy for you - and easy for a potential hacker.

Anti-virus software

While they won't protect against hackers breaking into websites where your passwords and personal information are stored, there are free anti-virus programs that can be downloaded to your computer. The best of these programs will stop malware - a term used for the malicious software that can allow hackers access to your computer.

Though he is a strong proponent of anti-virus programs ("it's important that everyone have one"), Haass adds a chilling, Rumfeldian caveat:

"The challenge with anti-virus programs is they only work with things that are known. They can't stop something that's unknown."

And new malwares are multiplying like - well, like viruses.

"Every second a new type of malware is discovered," said Haass. "At the last count, there were 84,000 a day."

On your phone too

While most understand that hackers try to infiltrate computers, the notion that someone could do evil things through your phone might sound odd. But, as Haass reminds, "A smartphone is just a mobile computer."

And, like computers, they can be infiltrated.

The two main ways that hackers can get into your phone are via virus-loaded apps and "cloning."

Trey Snyder of Prescott phone repair specialist Tec Rehab says that, while Apple's iPhones are relatively safe, android phones can be easily hacked.

One nefarious phone-hack is the "clone," in which a hacker will figure out how to mimic your phone's SIM card. After that, the evil doer can either make calls coming from your phone number/account - or intercept your communications.

"We had someone whose co-worker was evil to him," Snyder said, "and was getting every single text message and phone call he was getting."

At that point, nothing can be done other than to get a new subscriber identification module - commonly known as "SIM" - card and/or a new phone.

It's relatively easy to avoid having your phone hacked, says Snyder. "We always tell everyone with android phones to get a really good security system - because androids are more susceptible to hacking than computers."

McAfee, Avast, Norton, 360 Mobile Security, Avira and many other companies have downloadable apps advertised to guard phones against hacking, malware and viruses. Many of the apps are free; others charge minimal fees.

A few tips that don't cost anything: Disable Bluetooth function if you're not using it; and turn your phone off at night or other periods of inactivity.

"It's not impossible to hack an Apple phone but you have to have a knowledge that's extremely sophisticated," Snyder said. "I'm very comfortable with the protection from Apple. Nobody coming through our doors has ever been hacked on an Apple phone."

There are also applications available that allow you to track your phone if it is stolen - or lost.

Where's My Android, Android Lost Free and Plan B are just a few of the many free apps with tracking devices. Some apps even allow you to remotely take control of a phone that has been stolen.

About the NSA

What about protecting your information from NSA? You'd have to be an Edward Snowden - the NSA contractor who leaked information about the agency's surveillance of U.S. citizens - to encrypt all your communications and make them government-safe.

Snyder says paying to be part of a virtual private network (VPN) "is not 100 percent, but probably the best thing you can do.

"You pay for a service, and when you connect into it you're completely blocked off - the NSA can't casually go into it without a warrant."

Unless we are using disposable phones, masking our computer activities and encrypting emails, most of us are leaving multiple trails about what we are doing and saying.

"There's just so much information about any individual," Haass said. "Any time you purchase something, any time you make a phone call, if you use any social media - all of these things create a trail."

So does the professor of cyber security think people should worry about the NSA and any other government agencies that might be spying?

"Personally, I don't think so," Haass said. "Unless a person wants to leave the world - you could go to sub-Saharan Africa. But we have friends, we want to go out to see a movie.

"Am I going to let the fear of privacy change my life? I don't think so."

Follow Tom Scanlon on Twitter @tomscanlonpress