Cybersecurity is a topic that’s frequently in the news. Data breaches are increasingly common, and some hackers’ attacks are so severe that they make enterprise-level systems dysfunctional for weeks. As a freelancer, you’re in a somewhat unique cybersecurity situation because you work with clients independently.
Many traditionally employed people have IT teams to rely on if things go wrong. But freelance workers typically have to troubleshoot themselves unless they have tech-savvy friends who are willing to assist. Despite the lack of formal oversight, freelancers should worry about their cybersecurity for reasons beyond their workflow.
In some cases, clients can hold you liable if any of their information gets hacked while you possess it. Many freelance workers see the “professional negligence” phrase in their contracts. A freelancer could get accused of it if they neglect to protect their information, and that oversight causes a problem. Many things constitute professional negligence, but two are if a client’s data gets hacked or stolen.
While it’s a good idea to consider budgeting for a liability insurance package, there are numerous cybersecurity best practices you should follow regardless of the kinds of clients you work with — or how much of their data you have. Instead of preparing for the fallout, you can take preventative measures that allow you to be proactive about client security.
Here are nine essential cybersecurity tips freelancers need to keep in mind:
1. Avoid Using Open Wi-Fi Networks
Something many freelancers enjoy most about their work is the flexible work environment. For example, you can set up a workspace in a coffee shop one day and decide to use a coworking space the next. The growing number of open Wi-Fi hotspots makes it much easier than it once was to work from anywhere.
But, open Wi-Fi networks can also leave you at risk for a man-in-the-middle (MitM) attack. When it happens, victims believe they’re using the Wi-Fi network normally, but a hacker acts as an intermediary that receives all the transmitted information.
Some hackers also set up open Wi-Fi hotspots almost identical to the names of secured Wi-Fi hotspots that community businesses offer. Perhaps there’s a place you like to frequent called Joe’s Coffee. When you look at the list of available Wi-Fi options, there may be one called “JoesCoffeeFree” that’s open and another called “JoesCoffeeGuestUse” that requires a password.
A cybercriminal may have set up the first to attract people to send their data straight to them. After all, the word “free” is positive, and not having to use a password to access the network seems even better. Always use password-secured Wi-Fi if available. Also, confirm the Wi-Fi network name with an employee to prevent getting fooled by a lookalike.
2. Install Anti-Virus Software and Download All Available Updates
Using anti-virus software is one of the most straightforward things you can do to keep your information secure. Fortunately for people with tight budgets, there are numerous free options to try.
Once you install anti-virus software, check the settings to update the program to recognize the latest threats regularly. Many offerings download updates automatically over an active internet connection. But, if your chosen solution doesn’t do that, consider setting up a reminder on your smartphone to perform manual checks every week or two.
3. Keep Your Software and Operating System Up to Date
Maintaining a current edition of anti-virus software is a smart step to take, but other things also need to stay updated: your operating system and software. Research published in 2019 by Avast found that 55% of the software installed on computers was not the latest version.
That’s problematic because many software updates contain security patches that address known vulnerabilities. If you’re still running an outdated operating system or a software application, it’s easier for hackers to exploit weaknesses and cause problems with your computer.
Fortunately, operating systems and software titles usually provide automatic update settings, too. Bear in mind that you may not be able to continue using your computer or its software while downloading an update. It’s best to make the updates happen outside of your usual working hours.
4. Use a VPN
You’ve already learned why it’s wise to steer clear of open Wi-Fi networks. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, though. For example, if you have a 4-hour layover at an airport, you might try and get freelance work done during the downtime. The airport Wi-Fi may be your only option, and those are often unsecured connections.
Fortunately, a virtual private network (VPN) can boost your security. It’s a tool that encrypts your data and routes it through a secured “tunnel” while using the internet. This method keeps your data secured. Even internet service providers can’t see data sent through a VPN. Check out free or low-cost options first. They usually offer premium packages to buy if you like the service.
5. Pick Strong, Unique Passwords
There are probably at least a few password-protected interfaces you use as a freelancer, and there’s a good chance you may deal with significantly more. Digital Guardian carried out a survey that found 70% of users relied on more than 10 password-protected services, and nearly 30% said they had too many to count.
If you use many passwords, it’s tempting to go with ones that are easy to remember or use the same one across multiple sites. But those are both bad practices for cybersecurity. Instead, select complex passwords and pick a different one for every site. Using a password manager can help. It only requires you to remember a single master password for access to all the websites you use that require passwords. Some can also randomly generate new passwords for you.
6. Never Click on Strange Links from Clients
Getting work from clients is an exciting achievement for freelancers. But, in your eagerness to get started with a job, make sure you don’t walk into a cybersecurity trap. When people send you content with links, be especially careful.
Similar to how lottery scammers try to convince people that they’ve won money and only need to provide their bank details to get it, clients may try to get you to click on a link to input sensitive information for supposed payment purposes. Some clients may unknowingly have malware on their machines that embeds infected links in the things they send you.
You can put your mouse cursor over a link to see where it goes. If anything about the URL seems unusual, tell the client that you’re not comfortable using the link and ask about making different arrangements.
7. Keep Your Data Backed up
You’ve probably had at least a few instances where you’ve lost work or important files due to computer malfunctions. This lack of access is also a potential cybersecurity issue, mainly if you get targeted in a ransomware attack. Ransomware is a type of malware that lets hackers stop you from opening your files unless you pay the demanded amount. However, paying the ransom is not a guaranteed way to get the information back.
Always have at least one backup of your essential data, or perhaps keep everything on your work computer. Then, if a ransomware attack or anything else happens that restricts access to the things you need, you’ll have another way to get it.
8. Stay Aware of Your Physical Surroundings in Public Areas
Cybersecurity extends to the physical realm as well. For example, if you’re working somewhere like a public library and leave your laptop unattended while using the bathroom, someone could sit down in front of the laptop, act like it’s theirs and stuff it into a backpack. That’s why a computer lock is a good investment.
People sitting on either side of you could also peek as you work with sensitive material. If you’re worried about that, consider buying a privacy screen for your computer. It obscures the information on the screen when people look at it from an angle.
Overall, take care to remain alert when in public. Most people aren’t threats to your cybersecurity, but malicious ones could take information and equipment, plus potentially harm your trustworthiness as a freelancer.
9. Research Mobile Apps before Downloading Them
Cybersecurity experts warn that fake mobile apps are increasingly prevalent. Many of them seem to perform legitimate functions, but they install malware or compromise your data.
Learn as much as you can about mobile apps before downloading them. It’s easy to find some that can genuinely aid your freelance workflow, but others aren’t what they seem. Once you install an app, take care when choosing what permissions it has on your phone.
Cybersecurity precautions make sense for your freelance livelihood.
You probably put a conscious effort towards doing your best work as a freelancer. That approach can bolster your reputation and help your career.
Unfortunately, having poor or no cybersecurity practices can erode your intentions to thrive. The tips here can help you implement cybersecurity safeguards and use them every day.