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Computer Security Tips

The need to practice safe computing is more important than ever.  The SANS Institute recommends following these 10 Do-It-Yourself Computer Security Tips:

Ten Do-It-Yourself Computer Security Tips:

  1. Treat your computer like a machine. Computers need regular maintenance. If you ignore problems or put off fixing them, you risk more than the smooth functioning of your system. You may be inviting Bad Guys to steal your information or take over your system and use it to attack other computers.

  2. Use email wisely. Email is not private. Never send personal or sensitive information by email. Never view, open, or even click on email attachments unless you know who sent it, why they sent it, and what's in it. Even messages forwarded to you by friends might contain infected attachments and links that will shuttle you off to dangerous websites.

  3. Don't assume your security software is working. Familiarize yourself with the security software installed on your computers. Do you have a complete suite of anti-virus, anti-spyware, and a two-way software firewall? Identify onscreen icons and messages that indicate your security software is enabled and working. If an icon is not there, if its color or shape has changed, or if you see a message that says your security software isn't working, is out of date, or needs attention, take action to correct the problem immediately.

  4. Keep your software up-to-date. Many software products, including Windows and Mac OS X, have built-in automatic updaters. Make sure these are turned on. Some software products require manual updating. Know which are which on your computer. Not sure? Visit the website of the software manufacturer for tips on updating your software. Consider installing Secunia's free Personal Software Inspector, which provides extensive details on the software installed on your computer, and gives you direct links to update programs that are older and potentially not secure.

  5. Regard the Internet as a bad neighborhood at 2:00 AM. In 2008 about 1.5 billion people were using the Internet worldwide, and the number of websites approached 200,000,000. With that many apples in the barrel, it's anybody's guess how many are rotten. The steady growth of Web commerce attracts not only ordinary scammers, pirates, and thieves, but also national and multi-national organized crime syndicates. Criminal activity for financial gain is the single largest driver of massive increases in Internet threats, and bringing Internet criminals to justice remains a challenging task. Practice online safety. Protect your privacy, your identity, and your money.

  6. Ratchet up your browser's security. Malicious hackers and virus writers can infect your computer by taking advantage of low security settings in your browser software and enticing you to visit a malicious website. You can help limit your chances of being attacked by increasing your security settings and conducting business or entering sensitive information only on secure websites. Look for addresses that begin with https:// and check for the yellow security lock icon at the bottom of your browser window.

  7. Back up your data. Here is a simple, basic backup plan. Plug a good-sized, formatted, blank thumb drive (or "USB stick") into your computer. Double click on it and open a directory. As you work on your latest project and it comes time to take a break, save your work, close those crucial files, and drag copy them into the directory of the thumb drive. The more important your project is and the closer you get to the deadline, the more often you should pause to make a copy of your crucial files. The more often you backup, the less you stand you lose. After you've made a backup by whatever means, check to make sure that the copies are complete and that they work.  At the office, check with IT about using a thumb drive.  Some organizations do not allow them.

  8. Protect sensitive information, especially when you use a public computer.  It's best to avoid typing your credit card number, or other financial or sensitive information into any public computer, but sometimes you can't avoid it. Don't save your logon information. Don't leave a public computer unattended with sensitive information on the screen. Web browsers keep a record of your passwords and every page you visit, even after you've closed them and logged out. Learn how to erase your tracks. Watch for over-the-shoulder snoops.

  9. Be careful with wireless networks. Secure your own wireless network by enabling and using wireless encryption that scrambles the data transmitted between your PC and your wireless router. Check your WAP (wireless access point) to find out what kinds of encryption it can provide. Out of the box, the encryption on most WAP's will be shut off. The most effective encryption is WPA2 (Wireless Protected Access version 2). Use a strong password for your WPA2 encryption key. Before you connect to someone else's wireless network, make sure it's a legitimate hotspot: Nefarious types have been known to set up pirate WAP's with familiar names like "wayport" or "t-mobile," and then use them to capture passwords and other private data. Verify that your two-way software firewall is turned on, and that filesharing is off. Always turn your Wi-Fi networking off when you're not at a hotspot.

  10. Know your limits, and when you reach them, get expert advice. Not sure what the error message means? Don't know why you got that pop-up? Puzzled because a familiar website has asked you for a password or other sensitive information unexpectedly?  Not sure whether or not you should allow that program to access the Internet? Ask before you do the wrong thing. Contact your network administrator, IT Help Desk, your computer manufacturer's technical support department, your Internet Service Provider (ISP), or a trusted computer consultant.

Microsoft and Apple Security Updates

Microsoft and Apple provide free security updates for their software products.

Windows: Microsoft issues patches for all Microsoft products on the second Tuesday of each month as well as out-of-cycle patches on any day of the month. Check manually too, once every two weeks, to make sure all of the updates have been installed.  More information

Mac OS X: Updates are issued frequently, and their contents may differ depending on which processor is in your Mac (PPC or Intel). More information