How to increase the life of your devices and survive tech obsolescence
First we buy a gadget. Over the next several years, the manufacturer releases an occasional software update that fixes bugs and protects us from vulnerabilities. One day, those updates stop coming. According to conventional wisdom, that’s the time to buy a new device.
But what if it isn’t?
The truth is that updates do not have to be so automatic. We can often slow them down by following some of the best security practices and taking control of our personal technology. After all, it’s not realistic for everyone to update on a tech company’s schedule: Some devices, including expensive Android phones, stop receiving software updates after just two years. Not all of us have the time or money to buy new products on such a regular basis.
At the same time, we don’t want to hold on to our devices for so long that they become vulnerable to bugs, cyberattacks, and other failures. Software updates are often necessary for those reasons. Everyone should be able to safely use technology to live and work, said Hilary Shohoney, executive director of Free Geek, a nonprofit organization that repurposes outdated machines for schools and seniors.
“We have to cross the line between what is reality for many people and recognizing that everyone has to participate in the digital world,” he said. “It’s not fair to say you need the best computer to get the best security.”
So how do we walk that line?
While a new device must eventually be purchased, there are a few ways to keep your devices running safely even when the manufacturer stops providing software updates. Here is what you need to know.
Follow security best practices
Consider how we use technology today. On computers, much of what we do, from turning in homework to editing spreadsheets, happens through a web browser. On phones, we rely heavily on both the web and apps.
So staying safe online without direct help from a manufacturer largely involves taking steps to surf the web and use apps. Here are some things to pay attention to:
- Keep your browser updated
Staying on top of browser updates will offer some protection against malicious websites. Trusted browser companies like Mozilla, the maker of Firefox, update their apps to work on computers that are more than 10 years old.
- As always, avoid suspicious behavior.
Don’t open messages or click on links from unknown senders and, if possible, only use apps offered by trusted brands, said Sinan Eren, an executive at Barracuda Networks, a security firm.
- Be on the lookout for suspicious apps.
Android devices are more susceptible to malware than Apple phones, in part because they can be set to install apps from unauthorized app stores. Also, many manufacturers stop supporting Android devices after only two years. Google declined to comment. Owners of outdated Android devices can add a layer of protection by installing a malware scanning app from brands like Malwarebytes, NortonLifeLock, and Lookout.
- Secure your accounts online.
Even if your device software is out of date, setting up your online accounts with two-factor authentication, a security practice that generates a unique code via an app or text message every time you log in to a site, can help prevent inappropriate access to your account. in case of theft of your password.
Doing all of the above will reduce risk, but will not eliminate it. Dan Guido, CEO of Trail of Bits, an Internet security company, said outdated devices remained open for attackers to exploit due to known vulnerabilities within old software.
“Unsupported devices are a stable target, easy prey, for attackers,” he said.
Install a different operating system
There are more advanced steps that can keep a device functional and secure beyond its useful life. One is to replace the manufacturer’s software system with an alternative.
Shohoney’s nonprofit Free Geek, based in Portland, Oregon, revives old personal computers by installing a copy of Linux, the open source operating system known for its strong security and used for basic tasks like surf the web, exchange emails and write documents.
Installing a different operating system requires some technical knowledge, but countless online resources and tutorials offer step-by-step instructions for adding Linux to outdated Windows and Mac machines.
Smartphone owners have fewer options. For Android, LineageOS, an open source mobile operating system, has received positive reviews for its strong security.
However, outdated Apple mobile devices cannot be easily modified to install an alternative operating system. In fact, security experts recommend against “jailbreaking” or injecting unauthorized software, as it can weaken the security of the Apple device.
Reuse your old device
We can also take steps with our hardware, like replacing an old battery, to keep our devices working. But over time, when the cost, effort, and risk add up to make reviving a device impractical, the best option is to upgrade.
That doesn’t mean we have to take our devices to a recycling center. By turning off the Internet connection on an aging iPad, for example, you can safely use it for light tasks like playing music or jotting down recipes, said Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, a company that offers tools and instructions for repairing tech products.
“If it’s not connected to the network, it doesn’t matter if it’s out of date,” he said. New York Times
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