6 Free Ways to Save Your Digital Life

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If you lost everything on your computer, smartphone, and tablet, how would you price the damage? Internet security company McAfee claims it’s about $55,000 in value for the average American.

Of course, they would say that. They’re trying to promote their new software: McAfee All Access, a cross-device security solution that protects multiple Internet-enabled devices (PCs, Macs, smartphones, netbooks, and tablets) with one annual $100 fee. Symantec also came out recently with a similar service.

But before I get into all the “solutions” they offer, let me throw out a few more of McAfee’s survey stats…

  • 60 percent of consumers own at least 3 digital devices per household (25 percent have 5 or more).
  • On average, users have 2,777 digital files stored on at least one device, including music downloads, personal memories and photographs, personal communications, personal records (health, financial, insurance), career information (resumes, portfolios, cover letters, email contacts), and hobbies and creative projects.
  • 27 percent of those assets were considered “impossible to restore” if lost and not backed up properly, with personal stuff being the most valuable and irreplaceable.

“Not backed up properly” is the key phrase in that last one. If you don’t take care of your files, frankly, you might deserve what you get. You can back up and protect your files for a lot less than $100 a year, although McAfee tries to scare you away from the free stuff…

When it comes to security software, free is not better. A September 2010 USA TODAY survey of 16 anti-virus companies shows that no-cost anti-virus programs generally lack important features such as a firewall, website health checks, and automatic updates.

Yup, USA Today did say that. They then go into the story of a guy who researched and downloaded a bunch of free software to create “a small fortress” of protection, although they add he spent 50 hours researching this stuff. At that point I would just buy from McAfee.

But you really don’t need to spend 50 hours, or lots of money. Here’s how to get free most of the protections McAfee wants $100 for. Many of them you already have…

1. Firewall

Oh no, free antivirus programs don’t have firewalls! (Actually, some do.) What can we do?! Oh, right – PCs and Macs both come with built-in firewall software. And using multiple firewalls can cause conflicts, security gaps, and user frustration. Check that your firewall is enabled (instructions at the PC and Mac links), and you’re good.

2. Website health checks

McAfee already offers this for free as something called SiteAdvisor, so don’t pay them for it. For that matter, so does Norton, as Safe Web. And Google has a diagnostic feature that will warn you when you click on a risky link in search results. You can also run its diagnostic on your own without visiting the potentially dangerous page: Here it is testing our site.

3. Automatic updates

Again, this is something PCs and Macs can already do. Most of the software you use also informs you of updates. If you’re especially concerned about staying up-to-date, Macs have AppFresh and PCs have Secunia. But the update notifications can become more annoying than helpful.

4. Antivirus

We’ve covered this before: Antivirus Software Is a Waste of Money. Our tech guy Dan (who wrote that post and manages all things web-related here) recommends Microsoft Security Essentials, which is also what I use – without problems.

Do you need antivirus for your phone? McAfee is suggesting you do, and there have been a handful of Android viruses. For advice on this, I asked two of my techie friends: an IT manager for a Fortune 500 company and a computer systems security researcher.

The former said his company doesn’t use antivirus for smartphones, but they do block the download of risky third-party apps. The latter said the average phone user doesn’t need to worry yet: Viruses will continue to target low-hanging fruit, and that’s still desktops for now.

5. Device location

McAfee says its software can track and locate your phone by GPS, and “make it scream” so you can find it. This is another service you can get for free: There’s Find My iPhone, and Plan B for Android, which is even more convenient because you can install it remotely after losing the device.

For missing laptops and PCs, there’s free protection too. Check out this story I did on a man catching a laptop thief from hundreds of miles away. He did it with free software called Prey, which is available for most major operating systems.

6. Backup

With music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, many people don’t need to keep MP3 files anymore, and that’s good, becasue music, along with video, tend to eat up the largest chunk of space. For those who want to keep their collections, Google Music lets you store 20,000 songs free and listen from various devices. For now, you can’t re-download those songs, although it’s still in beta and that may change.

Amazon’s Cloud Drive gives you 5 GB of space for free (you can use it for music or anything else) and Apple’s iCloud does the same. Dropbox is another popular service for backup and file sharing, and offers 2 GB free.

For traditional offline backups, PCs and Macs once again already have options built in to make it simple. Windows has the Backup and Restore Center, and Macs have Time Machine.

If you’ve got more money than patience, or are responsible for protecting other people’s data, it might make sense to go for McAfee’s package. But the open-source, do-it-yourself ethos of the Web is as strong as ever – and there’s no reason the average consumer can’t take advantage of it.

Looking for more cheap digital security? Check out Your Co-Worker Could Be an Identity Thief – 4 Tips for Protecting Yourself.

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