Tech Tips for Tweeners: Computer Security

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One of the primary purposes of Newsome.Org is to introduce and explain computer-related programs and features to other in-betweeners like me- people who are the parents of the youngsters to whom computers and the internet are as integral as the telephone and the children of our parents who have no intention of ever embracing computers.

As the neighborhood computer geek, I get a lot of calls for help with computer-related problems. Without a doubt, the large majority of those problems are related to computer security, or the lack thereof.

There are 3 things that everyone must do to protect their computer and the data thereon. If you don’t do them, you will eventually encounter a problem. The only question is whether it will be a minor problem (such as a hijacked internet home page) or a big problem (like the loss of data or the theft of personal information).

Having said that, don’t avoid the internet like an unsafe neighborhood. The convenience and benefits are too great for that. We don’t give up driving just because there are bad drivers and potential carjackers out there. We simply wear our seatbelts, lock the doors and watch where we are going. There are a few simple things you can do to increase your computer safety and manage the risk.

One: Install a Firewall

A firewall monitors your incoming and outgoing internet (and other network) traffic and helps prevent traffic (e.g., connections) you don’t want from doing something bad to your computer. There are two kinds of firewalls: hardware and software. We are talking about the software kind.

Even if you connect through a router, you still need a software firewall.

There are a lot of choices out there, and I’ll recommend two. If you want to make things as simple as possible, use Windows’ built in firewall. You need to have Windows XP with Service Pack 2 installed in order to use Windows firewall, but (and this is very important) you need XP and SP2 installed for many other reasons. If you have an older version of Windows, upgrade. If you have XP make sure SP2 is installed. If your computer is too old to run XP and you are determined not to buy a new one, check out Zone Alarm (see below).

If you can’t or won’t use Windows’ built in firewall or if you want a little more protection, check out ZoneAlarm. There is a free version and a more robust ZoneAlarm Pro version, which is what I use. Both are easy to install and configure. $50 a year is not much money to protect your computer, so I suggest shelling out the dough. Also, unlike Windows firewall, ZoneAlarm works on Windows 98 (Second Edition) and later. If you have an earlier version of Windows, it is seriously time to junk it and get a new computer with a new OS (like Windows XP).

Two: Install Antivirus Software

After you get your firewall up and running, buy and install an antivirus program. Antivirus programs attempt to identify and eliminate computer viruses before they infect your computer. Unlike a firewall, which stops unwanted connections (where another computer “talks” to yours), antivirus software stops a usually hidden or disguised computer program from making changes to your computer.

Windows does not yet have an integrated antivirus program, although Microsoft is working on one. I’ll make two recommendations. One, which I use, is Norton Antivirus. You can buy it online, download it and install it right away. One note: resist buying the once indispensable Norton Utilities, which bundles other programs with an antivirus program. These once great programs have been largely rendered unnecessary by Windows XP and now serve mainly to cause unnecessary programs to run in the background, possibly slowing your computer down. The program costs another $50 per year, but is worth it.

The other program that I like, though less than Norton Antivirus, is McAfee Antivirus. Again, avoid buying a bundle of software. Buy only the antivirus program.

Important Note: No matter which program you buy, it is critical that you run regular updates, which can be automated if you like. The developers post regular updates that identify new viruses. If you don’t update the software regularly (at least once a week), you will not have adequate protection. Finally, make sure you have enabled email scanning, which allows the program to automatically scan every incoming and outgoing email for viruses. Most computer viruses are delivered via email, some of which may be disguised as emails from someone you know (once a virus infects a computer, it will often access the computer’s address book and email itself to the contacts therein- the idea being that people are more likely to open an email from someone they know).

Three: Install an Anti-Spyware Program

Firewalls keep hackers from communicating with your computer. Antivirus programs keep virus files from changing your computer, but there is still spyware. Spyware is malicious software intended to take partial control of a computer’s operation without the owner’s consent. Spyware differs from viruses in that it does not usually self-replicate (e.g., email itself via your address book). Like many recent viruses, spyware is primarily designed to exploit infected computers for commercial gain. I would also add that spyware is generally less damaging than a virus and is much more common on even a careful user’s computer. My unfortunate experience has been that spyware, particularly the tracking kind (that allows some program you have installed or some website you have visited to track where you go on the web), is virtually inevitable. The goal is to regularly scan for it and delete it.

Microsoft is also working on an integrated anti-spyware program and there is a beta version available for free. I haven’t used it, so I can’t comment other than to say that this will, like Windows firewall, become the easy choice in future versions of Windows. In the meantime, I’ll make two recommendations. First, Ad-Aware, the program I use. Like ZoneAlarm, there is a free version and an Ad-Aware Plus version for $40). I use the free version and it has always worked well for you. One note: the pay versions claim to prevent spyware before it infects your computer (and perhaps making spyware less inevitable). I haven’t used them, so I don’t know how well the prevention works. If anyone has any thoughts, please post a comment.

Another good program is Spyware Doctor. I have only used it a little, but it got a great review from PC Magazine. I stay with Ad-Aware, because I have used it for years. If I were starting anew, I’d shell out the $30 for Spyware Doctor.

Conclusion

I don’t want to overstate my point and cause undue concern about computer security. I use the internet for everything from banking to shopping to data storage and I have never suffered a serious security problem. The reason I am so comfortable using the internet so extensively is because I understand the risks and take these steps to manage them. It will take a couple of hours to buy and install these programs, but if you install them and keep them updated, you will protect yourself against some very real but manageable problems. Get to work and happy surfing!

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