6 computer security tips from a former NSA super hacker

Put these measures in place to protect yourself from cybercriminals.

In the mid-2000s, Patrick Wardle was part of an elite hacking team at the National Security Agency. So he knows a thing or two about breaking into computer systems. These days, Wardle creates tools that help people protect their devices and data from cybercriminals, whom he likens to thieves breaking into your home. "Just like a thief chooses houses at random, so does a hacker," he says.

His advice is to implement some basic security measures so the bad guys don't even think about targeting you. "We're talking about the equivalent in cybersecurity of getting a dog or an alarm system," he says.

But what should comprise that system? Wardle offered six tips he says everyone should follow to protect their computer.

Protect your password

It might be more convenient, but Wardle says reusing passwords makes you vulnerable to data breaches—especially when it comes to your email and online banking accounts. "If you use the same username and password combination for your bank you use for some shopping sites, which generally don't have very good security," he says, "[hackers] can now get into your bank account."

Pros like Wardle also use a password manager—a software tool that creates and stores a unique and complicated authentication code for each of your online accounts. Some password managers even help thwart phishing attempts by warning you when you're directed to a suspicious website. "My password manager makes my life so much easier," Wardle says. "It's one of the few pieces of software I actually pay for."

Cover your webcam

It's rare that someone will randomly spy on you over the internet, Wardle says, but it's so easy to protect yourself. "Cover your webcam when you're not using it!" he insists. If your laptop or tablet has a built-in cover, slide it over the lens. If not, use a piece of tape.

Update your software

The messages may seem annoying, but when your computer recommends you update your software or operating system, do it immediately. These updates often include patches that fix a security vulnerability. Once a vulnerability has been revealed, Wardle says, "you can be sure that hackers will be out in force, testing to find those who haven't yet installed a patch."

Updates also tend to contain new, under-the-hood protections that beef up your system's security. As Wardle puts it: "This one is really a no brainer."

Be smart when buying smart devices

The phones, laptops, tablets, and PCs we use every day are protected by cutting-edge security, Wardle says. Smart devices, however, are less secure and could compromise your network.

Wardle's main piece of advice is to buy from reputable companies. "If, say, you want a security camera or 'smart' doorbell, don't pop on to Amazon and buy the cheapest one or a knockoff," he says. "You're probably going to get what you pay for."

Another tip—think before you automatically connect a new gadget to your home network. Wardle's refrigerator is Wi-Fi-enabled, but he hasn't set up the connection. Yet he's made a different decision with his smart TV, which is also connected to Wi-Fi. "I basically weigh the risks versus the benefits for each device," he says.

Watch out for public networks

Most of us are using safe, password-protected networks inside of our homes. But what about an open network at an airport or coffee shop? Wardle says they're fine—as long as you're smart about the sites you visit. Never check your bank account. And never provide sensitive information—like your social security number or credit card—while connected to public Wi-Fi.

Install an extra layer of security

Most of our devices come with strong security features already built in. But one of the biggest flaws in our computers' security is human error. "Invariably," Wardle says, "we all slip up and click on something in an email or download and run something we shouldn't." The solution—purchase extra security, like antivirus software. You should also make sure your computer's firewall is turned on.

If you need help turning on the firewall on your computer or updating your software, contact a Yahoo Plus Protect Home expert for help. They're available 24/7 to answer your questions.