Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in our newsletters, specifically Kibbles & Bytes #941 & Tech Tails #932 .
Encryption is used to keep your private information safe on the Internet, whether it’s credit card numbers and contact info, your search queries, or iMessages to loved ones, by making them unreadable by anyone other than the sender and the intended recipient. The last year or so has been crazy in the realm of Internet security, with a number of vulnerabilities and weaknesses being found in various encryption methods & software. It seems to have been further snowballing lately as security professionals scrutinize all the pieces of the puzzle, but it’s all with the goal of keeping everyone’s personal information safe.
While security professionals are improving encryption methods & software, companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla are working to make sure that they’re including those improvements in their operating systems and web browsers. The Payment Cardholder Industry (i.e. credit card companies) have data security standards (PCI DSS) which everyone from merchants (including us) to banks need to comply with to ensure that personal information and credit card data is handled securely from end-to-end. Other industries have similar requirements and many tech companies also strive for the greatest in security. Naturally, with the ever changing Internet security landscape, those standards are changing as well. Some of the most recent changes will mean that a lot of older computers, devices, and browsers will no longer be able to access some secure websites.
So, how can you ensure that your data is secure and that your devices will be able to connect to all the secure websites you frequent on your Macs and iOS devices?
First, it’s important to run the newest major version of OS X on your Macs and iOS on your iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch) that your devices will run. Fortunately, OS X 10.11 El Capitan is a free download and will run on Macs released as far back as 2009 (or earlier, depending on the model). iOS 9 is also a free download and will run on iPhones & iPads released back to 2011. Of course, it’s always best to verify your software and peripherals are compatible with the latest operating system version prior to upgrading to new major version (e.g. OS X 10.9 Mavericks to OS X 10.10 Yosemite or iOS 7 to iOS 8).
Second, make sure you’re applying the latest OS & security updates. This is relatively straightforward as the App Store on iOS & OS X (or Software Update on Mac OS X 10.6.8 and earlier) will show you available updates. In OS X 10.9 Mavericks & OS X 10.10 Yosemite you can make sure important system & security updates are installed automatically (this is best if you have high speed Internet) by checking the “Automatically check for updates”, “Download newly available updates in the background”, and “Install system data files & security updates” checkboxes in the App Store pane in System Preferences. That way, you won’t even need to remember to check. Similarly, on iOS you can automatically download updates & apps by going to Settings > iTunes & App Store and turning on the “Apps” and “Updates” switches.
Third, and most important, is to run the most modern & secure web browser you can. Apple’s own Safari browser (which is included with OS X and iOS) is fast, efficient, and has excellent integration features, but it is only kept up-to-date for the current & previous version of OS X and the current version of iOS. Fortunately, there are other good alternatives which you can run on older, and current, versions of OS X (listed below by OS X version):
OS X 10.9 Mavericks – OS X 10.11 El Capitan (Intel):
OS X 10.7 Lion – OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion (Intel):
Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard (Intel):
Mac OS X Tiger 10.4 – Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard (PowerPC G3/G4/G5):
Safari will be updated automatically along with other OS X updates, but Chrome, Firefox, and TenFourFox will need to be kept up-to-date separately. Fortunately, they each offer an option to automatically check for updates, so you’re alerted when a new version is available. By doing this, you can rest assured that you’re taking full advantage of all the hard work that the security industry is putting in to keep everyone safe.
Additionally, for those who are running an old PowerPC Mac with Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger or 10.5 Leopard, the team behind TenFourFox have done an amazing job producing a custom version of Firefox to keep your Mac compatible with new websites and recent security improvements. Other parts of a version of Mac OS X that old are going to be inherently less secure than the latest version of OS X, but a browser can help keep your old Mac useful a little longer.
Naturally, there are still phishing attempts, insecure websites, and malicious software that you’ll want to keep an eye out for, but by keeping your OS and browser up-to-date, you’re greatly reducing risks from invisible, undetectable theft of your information.