Internet and computer security are huge issues and you could spend a lifetime learning all the aspects of protecting networks and systems. Due to that fact, and because talk of Internet security can bore even the biggest geeks to death, it’s best to break the main topics into manageable chunks. Therefore this is the second of three parts of this article. All three parts of this article can be accessed by following the links below.
Speaking of critical data, it’s time to talk about how you’re going to keep that data safe and viable. By critical data, I’m referring to your past clients roster, your personalized real estate marketing materials, your sales letters, your client referrals and testimonials, your photos of listings and so on. There are two very important things that need to be done with this and any other data that you deem critical. The first is that you need to be sure that other people don’t get access to this data, and the second is that you need to know that the data is safe, in the event of emergency computer failures. Keeping your data out of the hands of your competing REALTORS, or anyone for that matter, involves more than simply putting a password on your computer. That’s part of the equation, but you also need to be concerned with the physical security of your home and office. This involves locks, dead bolts, home security systems and other groovy stuff well beyond the scope of this article. I bring it up simply to remind you that it’s much easier for someone to steal your data by walking right in to your office than by hacking in remotely. It’s also important to note that almost all intellectual property theft (which is basically what we’re talking about with theft of your critical data) occurs with the help of an inside player. So mind your surroundings and keep your doors locked.
In addition to the obvious need for physical security, you should have a system in place for denying access to your computer once you’re sitting in front of it. Possible solutions for this include using passwords for all the users on your computer, magnetic swipe access cards and biometric sensors. Biometric access systems use information that you carry with you at all times that are unique to you and you alone. For example, one piece of biometric data is your fingerprint. Many new laptops are coming with fingerprint readers built-in and third party add-on scanners are becoming increasingly affordable. I recommend the use of two or more security “road blocks” for direct access to your computer. One of the most common authentication schemes in use today is the combination of a fingerprint reader with a strong user password (eight or more characters using upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols – i.e. HolySh@t1). Now that you’ve protected your office and restricted access to your computer we can look at how to actually secure the data itself. This is done with encryption software. Encryption and decryption software are computer programs used to scrambling and unscrambling data using very complex mathematical equations in conjunction with a password supplied by the user. This is a greatly simplified explanation of all the cool stuff that happens when encrypting or decrypting data, but you should stay awake for this part so I’ll spare you. Keep in mind that you’re going to need a strong password to use with your encryption software, preferably a password different than the one you’re using to access the computer. One very popular piece of encryption software is PGP, which stands for Pretty Good Privacy. Their name may be a little understated: their encryption was so strong that when they first started giving it away on the Internet the US Attorney’s office initiated an investigation of PGP’s founder Phil Zimmerman. Three years later they backed off and Zimmerman got tons of free publicity for his new company. With a strong password and software like PGP you can feel confident that your data will be safe from prying eyes.
Since we’ve made damn sure that no one else is going to be able to access your data, it’s high time that we concern ourselves with making sure that you will be able to access it, no matter what. What we’re talking about now is backing up your data and having a disaster recover plan. It sounds like such a simple thing to do: just pop a CD in your burner and copy your files. Sadly, I would estimate that over 80% of the REALTORS that I’ve worked with have little or none of the their data backed up. I had one real estate agent in particular that had the hard drive in the laptop die three times in the course of just a couple years. Three times! And how many times did he NOT have a backup? Three times! You would think that after the second time maybe, just maybe, he would have caught on. I can’t stress enough how important it is to back your data up. I recommend backups at least once every two weeks. And in order to insure that your backups don’t go down with the ship in the unlikely event that a hurricane or Godzilla levels your office building, you should keep your data backups in multiple locations. I would keep backups at both your home and your office, possibly even at your bank in a safety deposit box. Another great way to keep your data truly safe and accessible is to have an online hard drive with guaranteed backups and uptime. These services are very affordable that give you one more insurance policy for your data. Depending on how much data you have, one free option for remote backup of your data is to simply email yourself your data to a free online email account like GMail, Yahoo or Hotmail. All of these providers offer large (1GB or more) no cost email accounts. Plus, anything you send yourself on these accounts will be accessible from any Internet connected computer, not just your machine. You should encrypt your data before your send it off to a remote location just be sure that what’s yours stays that way.
This is the end of part two of three of Internet Security for the Modern Real Estate Agent. Stay tuned to part three where we’ll discuss backups and disaster recovery and conclude this article
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