The Internet has become a resource like none other. We rely on it for our news, directions, reference, social activates, school, work, banking and the management of our daily lives. Some will argue we spend too much time online, which I can attest to. However, the Internet is only getting more entwined into our lives and when we have trouble getting these activities accomplished, bills can be late and appointments missed. That’s if you’re lucky and you don’t end up having your identity stolen or bank accounts emptied.
So what’s the cause of all this Internet mayhem?
Viruses, malware, spyware and rogue software to name a few. These are a few of the type of attacks you need to be aware of while online. At work, you have an IT department that is responsible for the security of the network. You are governed by policies and there can be consequences related to your pc downtime or network disruptions.
But what about the home user?
Good question. We don’t have an IT department at home and don’t always have the knowledge of someone who works in the computer industry, but that doesn’t mean we have no responsibility in keeping our personal computers and the Internet as safe as possible. Your infected pc could be a botnet that affects other users on the Internet.
Now what can we do to keep ourselves safer while online. There are some simple things we can do and when I say “simple”, I realize I do work in the computer industry, so I will elaborate more on each item below.
Don’t Use an Administrator Account
This is one of my biggest complaints with Microsoft Windows. You buy a new computer and turn it on. It walks you through a wizard to setup and configure the pc. It asks you for your name, which you provide, who wouldn’t and maybe a password for the account. That’s all it needs, the next thing you see is the desktop with the user account that in all likelihood is your name. It shows up on the logon screen with your name. It looks good, the only problem is the account is created with administrative rights to the pc. What does this mean? It means you have access to make any system change and install software. The same goes for any viruses, malware, spyware and rogue software, that executes while you’re logged in. A piece of malware can now disable you antivirus, because you’re an administrator.
I can hear the Mac users now telling me that they’re administrators and don’t have any of the problems that Windows has. That’s completely inaccurate! They just don’t have as much, but getting hit with more every day.
So for any operating system, Mac or Windows don’t use an administrator account for daily computer use.
If you’re setting up a new computer, make the initial username “MYAdmin” or “Admin” and give it a good password. These are examples, use whatever you want. Make sure you document the password and keep it in a safe place. You probably won’t be able to use the username “Administrator” as it already exists and is disabled by default on Windows systems. It’s disabled because it’s a well know account and someone trying to get into your system already knows the username, they just need the password.
After you log onto the pc as your new administrator account. Create an additional account for each user who will use the pc and set the access level to a “Standard User”. This includes children, but you might want to have some parental controls in place first. I will explain that in another post. If you’re concerned about what kids may be doing online, and you should be, you can limit children to your computer account for the time being.
You should be able to use the links above to remove administrator rights from existing user and make them standard. The account creation and editing is done in the same location. Just remember, you must have at least 1 administrator account.
The Windows links above are the steps for configuring accounts on newer versions of Microsoft Windows. I have left out Windows XP and that is explained more in the next section.
Is this inconvenient? Sometimes, but it has gotten much better. When something takes place that requires administrator rights, you will be prompted to supply the credentials. If you’re not sure why you’re being prompted, don’t allow it to continue.
If you have kids who use your pc and they have admin rights or are using an account with those rights, look at how much software gets installed that you don’t know about or wasn’t there last time you used the pc. This is my #1 recommendation to stay safer online.
Updating the Operating System
The first thing is the computer you use. Whether it’s a Windows pc or a Mac, the operating system needs to be kept up-to-date with all security patches. It’s also a good idea to keep all your software up to date by checking with the software maker for updates and patches. For this post, I’m focusing on the operating system. Since I work primarily with Windows systems, my first piece of advice is if you’re using Windows XP, it’s time to upgrade. Support for Windows XP will end on April 8, 2014. This means no more security updates. Bad guys don’t stop exploiting software because the manufacture retired the operating system. It may seem like plenty of time , 17 months, but the fact is Windows XP was released at the end of 2001. That’s an operating system that’s been around for 11 years. Enough said!
So let’s patch our systems. The first thing you need to know is what operating system am I running? I can’t tell you how many times I ask someone the operating system they are running and they have no idea. It’s important to know and easy to find out.
If you’re running Windows:
Click the Start button , type winver in the search box, and then press Enter.
If the steps above don’t work on your computer, you might be running a previous version of Windows. To check, click Start, click Run, type winver, and then press Enter. Then look at buying a new computer.
If you’re running Mac:
From the Apple menu, select About This Mac.
Now that we know the version of the operating system, let’s make sure we are setup to receive security updates and patches automatically.
Basically, you want the computer to patch itself on a schedule, specific days and times. And once set, this is pretty affective on systems that are always on, like desktops. But sometimes the system is off when patching takes place. Maybe you prefer to shut off your pc when not in use. Or you use a laptop that is sitting in a bag until you need it. In that case, you need to be manually checking for updates periodically to make sure you’re current.
This is a topic that always leads to debate over which antivirus product is best. And frankly I don’t care! The important thing is you have it, it’s updated and it’s turned on. Most antivirus products charge a yearly subscription, but there are a few that offer free products. I have linked to a few below, but if you already have one, make sure it’s current. They are listed alphabetically, not by my preference.
As you can see, there are plenty of choices from reputable companies that are not only effective, but sometimes free. So there’s no excuse not to have one.
Bowsers, Flash & Java
Here’s another topic that stirs debate, but is important none the less. The web browser is used constantly for all things web and it’s becoming more of an application. We access email, upload files and pictures and more and more we create and edit documents directly in the bowsers. Most operating systems ship with a default browser, Windows has Internet Explorer and Mac has Safari. If you follow the steps in the “Updating the Operating System” section, these browsers will get updated automatically with patches. On the Windows side, this will include security patches and eventually the latest Internet Explorer release. If you use Internet Explorer I recommend you have the latest version installed. For Windows Vista and Windows 7 users, this is version 9. Corporate users have to worry about upgrading to the latest release and breaking a piece of software they rely on to do their job. This is generally not the case with home computers, so I recommend upgrading.
There are many options for web browsers, and a lot of the time it may be we use a particular browser for specific web services. For instance, I use Internet Explorer when I’m working with Microsoft products and services online and Google Chrome when using Google services.
Firefox and Google Chrome have an auto update feature that will install the latest version for you so you keep up-to-date. Other browsers will support this in the future if they don’t already.
If you’re interested in using another web browser, check out the few listed below. If using Internet Explorer, update to version 9.
Flash and Java, what are they? Flash is a multimedia platform. You have seen flash when playing videos online or games using Facebook. These items use Flash and Flash has some very serious security concerns. Just like anything else, it must be kept up-to-date. Newer web browsers such as Firefox, Chrome and the soon to be released Internet Explorer 10 have a way of securely running Flash within your browsers and automatically updating it when security patches are released. Which seems like daily if you follow vulnerabilities like I do? I’m not saying not to use it, but make sure it’s current. The link below will tell you you’re version and help you update.
Java is a programing language and with any programming language, it’s not without its faults. It also must be patched and updated. Java boasts it’s installed in something like a billion devices and not all of those devices are connected to the Internet. You can find Java in Cell phones, TV’s, DVD player and your computer. That’s a lot of devices that have some sort of security vulnerability. I’m not saying to install the latest version of Java on your TV, probably not possible. It’s more of a general statement that as more and more devices connect online, the software running them needs to be better and safer. The link below will tell you you’re version and help you update.
When installing Flash or Java if you have the option of allowing the software to automatically update itself, select it. I’m sure the latest version of Flash offers this, but I’m not sure about Java. That way you won’t have to worry about it as often.
If you get a prompt that says a Java update is available, install it, don’t be afraid, I just explained what it is.
The steps below are not guaranteed to keep you from ever dealing with a virus or spyware infection, it just lessens the likelihood of it happening. You still need to be vigilant about what you do online.