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For most Canadians, January is a time to reset after a long and (hopefully) relaxing holiday vacation. It’s also a new year, which means one thing: resolutions.

We’re used to the common ones, like eating better, learning a new language, reading more, and going to the gym, all in the name of becoming a better version of ourselves with the new year being our excuse to a blank slate.

Resolutions are generally tied to activities in the physical world, but we often forget ways to improve our online world, which is ironic given how many of our holiday and new year’s resolutions are accompanied by fancy new devices and apps!

As more of our lives move online, and products and services create a seemingly infinite amount of clutter, your internet world requires routine grooming, just like cleaning your house. 

If you’re looking for a resolution to take on this year that doesn’t involve going to the gym, or you’re looking to replace the one that you’ve already decided to drop a couple of days into January, I can’t recommend building good digital hygiene practices enough.

What is digital hygiene?

Digital hygiene is the catch-all term for the practices and behaviours related to cleaning up and maintaining your digital world. You might hear this being called cyber hygiene or internet hygiene—these all really mean the same thing. 

This includes everything from organizing the files on your computer, to locking down your social media accounts, to introducing new apps or technologies to make your digital life easier or more secure.

Benefits of digital hygiene

Maintaining good digital hygiene will keep you safer on the internet, plain and simple. Everything you own online can become a source of entry or a piece of information used by a bad actor to launch a scam or cyberattack against you.

By getting rid of the junk, and tidying and securing the things you actually use, you reduce both the likelihood of getting attacked and the severity of a successful attack.

And just like cleaning your physical house, there’s also an emotional benefit to cleaning up your digital life. Having a world with fewer emails to ignore and more storage on your phone for dog pictures is extremely satisfying!

5 digital hygiene tips

1. Organize your inbox and unsubscribe from junk emails

Whether you’re working towards inbox zero or declaring inbox bankruptcy, keeping your inbox tidy and exclusive is one of the first steps towards a squeaky clean digital life

First, unsubscribe from any emails that you truly don’t care for anymore. That marketing newsletter that you’ve hit “mark read” on every day for the last three years? Just get it out of your life.

You’ll come across accounts you didn’t know you have, or that you don’t need anymore. Unsubscribe from those emails, and jot the accounts down—you’ll need them for the next step.

Once you’ve purged all of the useless emails, you’ll want to organize the ones you do need. Some email clients will categorize your emails automatically, so lean on that feature if it’s available to you.

At the very least, you’ll want all account and security related emails to go into one bucket. This way, important emails, such as password resets or subscription fee notices, will be in one obvious place and not get lost in the noise of your inbox. 

This way you can respond quicker when a bad actor is trying to access your accounts. You can also protect yourself from clicking on fake phishing emails that look like real emails from your accounts because they won’t be going into your new organized folders.

2. Update your devices, and delete old apps and accounts

There are several practices wrapped up in this tip, but at the end of the day, your devices should always be up to date and any devices and accounts you don’t use anymore should be retired.

Every single account, app, and device can be used to gain entry into everything you own because either email addresses are shared, or apps are linked with other apps.

You can’t control how other companies will handle their data, and you never know when one will get breached. Take this scenario:

  • You sign up for Neopets 20 years ago with an awkward high school email address (we’ve all been there.)
  • You get a new, professional email address many years later. Your high school email address is the security backup.
  • Neopets gets breached, and some hacker gets access to your old email.
  • Now they can use your old email to get access to your current email, thus getting access to everything else.

Using your handy list of old accounts from the first tip, you have a pretty good start on what accounts you should delete. Simply log into each account, wipe the data if possible, disconnect them from other accounts (like social media accounts), then request the account be deleted. If you need to, many apps will provide you with an archive that you can download if you want to take a trip down Nostalgia Street in the future.

With physical devices, if you no longer use it, factory reset the device so no data is available on it. This way, if you recycle or donate your device, some random stranger won’t have accidental access to whatever was on the device.

3. Move everything into a password manager

After deleting your old emails and accounts, you’re left with only the accounts you actively use. Now is the best time to put them all into a password manager.

The combination of strong passwords and password managers is one of the most effective ways to protect yourself online. There are tons of great—and free—password managers out there, such as 1Password and LastPass.

Your browser also has a password manager that you could use, and while it’s better than nothing, we recommend using an independent password manager. 

First, add your cleaned up list of active accounts and apps in your new password manager using your existing passwords.

Then, one by one, go and change your password from each account using the strong password generator offered by your password manager. Once you set a new password, most password managers will automatically update themselves. Most password managers also work across both desktop and mobile, so re-logging into your accounts on your phone shouldn’t be difficult.

Now, let’s get into the advanced tips.

4. Turn on multi-factor authentication

As you refresh and strengthen your passwords for all of your accounts, you should see if your account or service allows multi-factor authentication (sometimes called two-factor, 2FA or MFA). 

Multi-factor authentication means requiring more than just your password to login to something. This is often a text message to your cell phone, but can come in other forms, like an email verification, facial recognition, fingerprint, or the use of a token-based authentication app like Authy.

Multi-factor authentication is important because a password can be used anywhere, but the other factors like a fingerprint are generally not reproducible by anyone other than you. This means that if a hacker gets your password, they still can’t access your account.

This will almost always be an available feature for critical accounts, like your banking and personal finance apps, and you should turn it on whenever possible. If your multi-factor authentication method provides you with backup codes, store those in your password manager.

5. Review privacy and security settings on accounts and social media

Your apps and accounts are sucking up a surprising amount of data on you, but you often have some amount of control over that—just not by default.

Generally, the less data you make available to the internet, the better. Some applications will make important personal data like your email address, birthday, and location available publicly. Unless you have a good reason for making those available, you should look for privacy and security settings that allow you to hide critical information from the public. 

Digital hygiene in the workplace

These tips aren’t just for your personal digital life. We highly recommend you implement some of these best practices to your workplace as well, especially using password managers and organizing email.

We recommend separating personal and work stuff whenever possible. Use a dedicated password manager for work, avoid using your personal email for work applications, and follow any tips or programs that your IT or security department provide you with.

If your work has cybersecurity awareness training, January is a good time to take a refresher course.

Turn digital hygiene into a routine

Following these digital hygiene tips for the first time can seem like a time-consuming, daunting task—but it’s well worth it!

Like any resolution, the trick is to turn digital hygiene into a frequent habit. Unsubscribe from emails regularly, add new accounts to your password manager as you sign up for them, clean out your computer files monthly, and so on.

Set reminders in your calendar for these, or add them to your fancy new habit tracking app. By cleaning your digital life as you go, you won’t have to spend several hours next year cleaning up your messes up from this year. And you’ll be safer and better protected against cyber-attacks!