Today, personal computers and the internet are an integral part of our lives. We chat, bank online, shop, even invest online on a regular basis. But the more business that is done online, the more vulnerable people are to possible security threats from hackers. The threat could be a hacker using your PC as a zombie, a platform to use for attacks on other personal computers; or to access your private data, a procedure typically called phishing.
All of us who use a PC online should know of the dangers, and here we will list some basic techniques you can use to help protect yourself.
- Make backups of your valuable data and keep it safe, away from the machine. Most machines now come with DVD-R drives and so it is a simple matter to copy your data to a blank disc and file it. Alternatively, consider an external hard drive.
- Update your operating system, browser, and software frequently. Windows now provides an automated update where the latest patches are downloaded to your computer for you to apply on the next reboot. Alternatively you can access it from the Control Panel (Start-Control Panel-Windows Update). For older versions of Windows (e.g. XP) you can check online for patches at windowsupdate.microsoft.com. Keep in mind that the older versions of Windows may no longer be supported by Microsoft, so for the best possible security protection keep your operating system as up-to-date as you can. Similarly keep your browser updated; most browsers have an option to check for updates from the Help menu.
- Set up a firewall. A good firewall will block viruses and trojans from getting to your machine, and anything you are unaware of that is trying to access the internet without your knowledge will be stopped. Windows Firewall comes with Vista and Windows 7 (and is by default turned on), but you may also want to consider a third- party product such as the popular ZoneAlarm.
- Make sure you have antivirus software. Very important! Most modern computers come with a version of McAfee or Norton which is valid for 30 days, but to keep receiving updates you have to subscribe to them. If you do not wish to subscribe and are looking for a free solution, AVG or Avast both offer free versions; if you use either AVG or Avast make sure they are set to update automatically so that the latest antivirus patches are downloaded regularly.
- Beware of email attachments. A typical way of passing a virus around is via an email attachment, it is possible to scan these using your anti-virus software but in general, if you do not recognise the sender, do not trust the attachment. Also, you may get a mail from an address that appears genuine, but is actually a hacker impersonating a genuine company (this is a typical phishing method).
- Do not run programs from unknown sources. Just as before, your anti-virus software should be able to scan and detect viruses hidden in downloaded files, but use sound judgment. Also do not forward anything on of which you are not sure, it could have a funny joke in it but if a friend or co-worker gets a virus from it, you will find yourself in trouble.
- Disable hidden filename extensions. By default, Windows hides file extensions “for known file types”. This should be disabled, which is done by going to Tools, then Folder Options, and selecting the View tab in Explorer. In Vista or later, the menu bar is hidden – to reveal it, press the ALT key once and it will show in Explorer, then proceed as described.
- If you’re not using the computer, turn it off! Nothing can get to your computer while it’s switched off, so when you’re not using it, shut it down.
- Make a bootable CD or pen drive so that if your machine ever does get damaged, you can still start it up. Modern computers no longer use floppy drives to boot from a floppy in the event of a computer failing to start from the hard drive, so you would need to use your CD drive or USB pen drive instead. A good way to get to your computer is to have a bootable operating system on a CD or DVD, such as Ubuntu. It will run live from the disk, so if you cannot boot the computer in the normal manner, you can still access the files and if necessary rescue them. Ubuntu is a free operating system based on Linux, and you can get it at http://www.ubuntu.com/desktop/get-ubuntu/download
Everybody should know these basic techniques so that they can protect themselves, or recover in the event of a failure.