Worried About Being Hacked? Update Your Software, You Big Dummy

A hacking group called the Shadow Brokers publicly released computer spying tools used by the National Security Agency, and it plans to release more. An unknown computer hacker stole 1.9 million email addresses from a major Canadian telecom company. Most recently, an ongoing ransomware attack called WannaCry is taking Windows computers hostage around the world, encrypting their data and only decrypting it when the victim sends money to the attackers.

The bottom line is that it’s easier than ever to find yourself compromised as a tech consumer. Thankfully there's a simple (and free!) answer to this all: Regularly update your software. It really is that simple.

There are a variety of software tools and best practices you can adopt to maintain your computer as the bulletproof fortress you’d like to think it is. Few put it as well as Dan Guido, CEO of New York–based cybersecurity research firm Trail of Bits: “Security is not an app you can download. Keeping yourself safe on the internet means thinking about what you're keeping yourself safe from." So when a vast majority of crippling hacks rely on finding exploits in old or otherwise outdated software, this vulnerability disappears when you run current software. If you procrastinate on software updates, you make yourself that much more vulnerable to seeing your devices compromised.

Despite a lot of automatic update utilities making this a trivial chore, people still fall into the trap of relying on outdated software far longer than they should. Consider the Android mobile operating system, currently marked as version 7.0; in playful Google nomenclature, they call it “Nougat.” Google’s own numbers show that just 6.6 percent of the Android user base us running this current version. The most popular installed version is 6.0 (“Marshmallow”), which was obsolesced in August 2016. This population is inherently more vulnerable to attack by not using the latest, greatest software.

It’s important to update your computer and smartphone, but the discerning tech consumer will also keep an eye on updating other devices — consider your WiFi router, or your Samsung television. These gadgets work the way they do because they follow the instructions encoded into their software. If that code should change, then the device’s behavior will change (and not necessarily for the better). If your devices’ capabilities are going to change, it’s better to see it happen as a result of installing a formal software update directly from the authorized provider. If you make it a habit to update software as it becomes available, then you add an additional layer of protection between you and the world’s malicious actors.

Smartphones, tablets, and computers across brands come with automated software that will not only update the device’s operating system, but will also download the latest versions of whichever apps the user has installed. Other devices like your router can be trickier to manage; you may be required to log into the router itself or follow a less-than-intuitive installation process. (If you’d rather not bother, then spring for a more modern router like Eero or Google WiFi, which update themselves automatically.)

It’s great to have new, current hardware, but it’s the software inside the hardware that actually makes it the latest and greatest. You enjoy a device of maximum capability and security while hackers struggle to find a way to wiggle in.