Yes, you can make your technology survive obsolescence
First we buy a gadget. Over the next few 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, now is the time to buy a new device.
But what if this is not the case?
The truth is, upgrades don’t need to be so automatic. We can often delay them if we follow some of the best security practices and take control of our personal technology. After all, it’s not realistic for everyone to upgrade 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 the money to buy new products so regularly.
At the same time, we don’t want to keep our gadgets around for so long that they become vulnerable to bugs, cyberattacks and other vulnerabilities. Software upgrades are usually required for these reasons. Everyone should be able to use technology safely to live and work, said Hilary Shohoney, executive director of Free Geek, a nonprofit that reuses outdated machines for schools and seniors.
“We need to distinguish between what reality is for a lot of people and recognize that everyone needs to engage in the digital world,” she said. “It’s not fair to say you need the best computer to get the best security.”
So how do we walk this line? Although a new gadget will eventually need to be purchased, there are ways to ensure that your devices work safely even when the manufacturer stops providing software updates. Here’s what you need to know.
Follow security best practices
Consider how we use technology these days. On computers, much of what we do, from handing in assignments to editing worksheets, is done through a web browser. On phones, we rely heavily on the web and apps.
So staying safe online without direct help from a manufacturer largely involves taking steps to browse the web and use apps. Here are some things to pay attention to:
• Keep your browser up to date. Staying on top of browser updates will provide some protection against malicious websites. Trustworthy browser companies like Mozilla, the maker of Firefox, update their apps to work on computers over 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 company.
• Be on the lookout for shady apps. Android devices are more susceptible to malware than Apple phones, in part because they can be configured to install apps from unauthorized app stores. Additionally, many manufacturers stop supporting Android devices after just two years. Google declined to comment. Owners of outdated Android devices can add a layer of protection by installing a malware scanner app from brands like Malwarebytes, NortonLifeLock, and Lookout.
• Secure your online accounts. Even if your device software is outdated, setting up your online accounts with two-factor authentication (a security practice that generates a unique code through an app or text message each time you log in to a site) can help prevent inappropriate access to your account if your password is stolen.
Doing all of the above will reduce the risk, but not eliminate it.
Install a different operating system
There are more advanced steps that can keep a device functional and secure beyond its supported lifetime. 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 robust security and used to basic tasks like browsing the web, exchanging e-mails and composing documents.
Installing a different operating system requires some technical know-how, but a myriad of 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 robust security.
However, outdated Apple mobile devices cannot be easily modified to install another operating system. In fact, security experts advise against “jailbreaking” or injecting unauthorized software, as it may weaken the security of the Apple device.
Reuse your old device
Over time, when cost, effort, and risk add up and make reviving a device impossible, upgrading is your best bet.
This does not mean that we have to take our devices to a recycling center. By turning off an outdated iPad’s internet connection, for example, you can safely use it for light tasks like listening to music or jotting down recipes, said Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit.
“If it’s not connected to the net, it doesn’t matter that it’s outdated,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.