10 Tips to Make Your Computer More Secure


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Photo by woodleywonderworks

In contrast to just ten years ago, computers and smartphones are intergral to almost everyone’s lives. We use them in our workplace and at home- and often there are multiple computers in all our houses. Then there are our smartphones which are basically computers.

With everyone using computers on a daily basis they are becoming more and more vulnerable to cyber criminals and hackers. It can potentially affect all types of computers whether your running Windows, Mac OS, Linux or a smartphone equivalent.

The problem is that most people either don’t have the time or are just not interested in making their computers secure. It doesn’t have to be this way, it’s just that the information out there about computer security is just too complicated or confusing to understand. There are some good articles such as this article on Shaan Haider’s blog entitled “Keeping Your Personal Computer Secure : 7 Security Questions You Need to Ask“.

I hope to make a start at simpliying things. I say “make a start” because, computer security is a huge topic, and one that many large companies spend millions of pounds or dollars on each year.

1. Do you need to be connected to the internet all the time?

The answer to this for me (and I suspect more and more people) is a resounding “yes!”, but if you have a computer running for long periods of time and you don’t need to be connected to the internet, then it’s probably quite prudent to switch your internet router off. Hackers tend to prefer to exploit “always on” connections, and if your internet connection is more sporadic, you’ll be less attractive to them.

However, for most people this just isn’t going to be practical. More and more of the stuff we do these days requires an internet connection. With Windows 8 coming later this year and new versions of the Mac operating system, our computers will be demanding “always on” connections. It’s not just computers either- it’s our digital TV boxes and even our fridges and dishwashers (assuming you have an internet ready one!). If this is the case, you’ll need to ensure that you protect your connection to the internet at it’s entry point- usually your router.

2. Make sure your router has a decent firewall

A firewall is a piece of software or hardware that (simply speaking) lets the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. Most internet service providers offer a free router and modem when you sign up with them. Make sure that it has a decent firewall. If you are a tech-savvy person then you can even upgrade the firmware (using the likes of Tomato or DD-WRT) on many routers to improve the security amongst other things. This Lifehacker article gives some good tips on how to do this.

3. Make sure your Computer or Device has a decent firewall

Most computers these days have an intergrated firewall built in to the operating system. Windows has the imaginatively titled “Windows Firewall” and Mac OS X has an intergrated one too (see here for more information on how to enable the Mac OS X firewall in Snow Leopard). For Linux, it depends on your flavour, but this article from Tech Radar gives a list of decent firewalls you could consider.

4. Install Decent Anti-virus Software

I know some people believe the conspiracy theory that some of the software houses that produce anti-virus applications actually generate the viruses in the first place. The thought is that they do this in order to whip up some hysteria so that more people will buy their product. Although it’s tempting to believe this, I don’t think there is much truth in it. This article from Computer Hope gives some excellent points against the view. There are some people that say having anti-virus software is a waste of time as long as your careful and that all they do is slow down your computer.

The truth is, anti-virus software is a must for almost everyone. Yes, they will slow down your computer a little, but I think that is a pill worth swallowing as opposed to being infected by a virus. You don’t need to spend any money on it either. One of the best anti-virus applications for PCs is Microsoft’s own Security Essentials which will be built in for the first time to the forthcoming Windows 8.

It’s a complete myth that Mac users are exempt from viruses as the recent Mac Flashback virus outbreak shows. There aren’t many free anti-virus applications for the Mac, as this article from the Guardian recommends, you could always try ClamXav.

Finally, anti-virus applications have to be updated regularly- I’d recommend at least twice a day. Make sure you check the settings. Also if you use USB thumb drives or external hard drives, do scan them for viruses- particularly if the drive belongs to someone else. I know of many friends whose computers have been infected by using an infected drive belonging to a friend.

5. Keep Your Computer Up to Date!

I know it’s annoying, but make sure you check your computer for updates! I’ve seen so many cases of computers that have never had any updates done to the operating system. Both Microsoft and Apple roll out updates regularly to their operating systems. These can be important security patches and you may be compromised if you don’t install them!

6. Don’t Visit Porn Sites (or any other dodgy or affected site)!

Did I really write that? Erm, yes I did. The problem is, that there are sites out there that are out to get you. They may have been effected by a worm that modifies the website with the intention to infect your computer with a virus. Some sites are there to deliberately get you. Things are a little better these days, but there are still plenty of cases of infected sites.  Be careful where you’re browsing- and again make sure you’re anti-virus software is up to date.

7. Keep Your Password Safe and Hard to Guess.

I wrote an article before about how easy it is for your password to be compromised. The truth is you can’t trust any site that you give your password to because you don’t know how they store it. It’s best to use a different password for each website your sign up to. I know that sounds hard, but it’s quite easy to do- more information in my earlier article. 

I’d also highly recommend the password manager- Last Pass. This manages all your passwords securely so that you never have to type it on your computer (in case you are infected by a keyboard sniffer) or store them anywhere insecurely. It also has a password generator, so you can effectively have a different strong complicated password for each site you visit. It is highly recommended!

Finally, be careful about saving passwords on applications on your computer. Famously, the FTP client Filezilla stores your passwords in plain text. Not great for security.

8. Use a Decent Web Browser

google chromeMost people still use Internet Explorer or Safari for browsing. They’ve come on in recent years- especially Internet Explorer. Still, my personal recommendation is to use Google Chrome as your browser as it’s been hailed as the most secure of browsers again and again.

 

9. Don’t Trust Public Wifi

WifiIf you surf the web whilst sipping your latte in your local coffee shop beware! Did you know that much of your internet connection (web browsing and email) is being sent over the connection unencrypted? Anyone malicious in the coffee shop could be listening in and stealing your passwords. If you have a 3G connection then use that, but if not, you’ll need to secure your connection. Websites that use https (Facebook and Twitter for example) encrypt your data, but most websites won’t. For this, you’ll need to use a VPN or virtual private network. This encrypts your connection by connecting to a secure server in the middle. You can build your own (as this Lifehacker article tells you), but it’s probably easier to use a VPN service. Again, Lifehacker comes to the rescue with a list of the best VPNs. Personally I use the VPN service from Private Internet Access* which is reliable and very secure.

10. Never Leave Your Computer Unattended

I know this is obvious, but don’t leave your computer on if you’re not around. I suppose it depends where the computer is. I have a server at home that is on all the time, but I do trust my wife not to hack in to the computer and install a virus! It’s not enough to go to the lock screen either, as someone could just connect a device to your computer and steal your data or even your whole computer. It’s probably a good idea to look at encrypting your hard drive, but that’s for another time…!

Conclusion

These 8 tips are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many other things you can do to protect yourself. I haven’t mentioned anti-spyware scanners, computer cleaners (such as CCleaner) and of course there is the whole chestnut of encrypting the data on your computer and whether you can trust cloud providers like Dropbox with your data. That’s for another post. David Haslam makes some great posts below about making secure you use decent security settings on your wifi connection, and in particular to use WPA or WPA2. Looks like I’ll be adding that one to the next post too!

If you have any top tips, then please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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Comments- Let me know what you think!

  • David Haslam

    If you use DropBox, you might wish to use SecretSynch for sharing any sensitive files.

    This securely encrypts the files on your own computer BEFORE they are transmitted to DropBox, and they remain encrypted in the cloud storage provider.

    http://getsecretsync.com/

  • David Haslam

    Here’s another tip.  Make sure you have a long enough WPA (or WPA2) wireless network key, and use wireless router hardware that allows you the user to program the key value.

    10 characters might seem secure, but with today’s technology it can be cracked in a relatively short time.

    This is especially worrying for BT Home Hub users, for which the network key is also fixed in the hardware rather than being something the user can reprogram. Moreover, the 10 character key value is even printed on the back of the Home Hub.

    So, if you have a visiting tradesman in your home, and the Home Hub is in the hallway, and you happen to go into another room even for just a minute or two, it would be easy for the visitor to upturn the Home Hub hardware, and take a picture of it with his camera phone.

    Afterwards, anyone in a van parked outside your home could connect to your home wireless network, and gain access to your computers.

    A WPA key value can be up to 63 characters long, and may include letters (case sensitive), numerical digits (0-9) and even special characters (symbols and spaces). Go for a minimum of 17 or 18 characters with some from each group.

    If you have worries about remembering such a key, realize that once all your computers are connected, you should never need to enter the key again for each of them.

    You might wish to allow trusted friends and visiting family members to connect. This can be achieved in several ways. One might be by having a USB memory stick that you normally keep locked away in a safe or (better still) obtain a Yubikey. See http://www.yubico.com/yubikey

    • http://iag.me/ Ian Anderson Gray

      More great tips, David- thanks! 

      I think one of the main issues is, that people have no idea about wifi security. Most people will just use the settings that came with the router which quite often is just WEP. Like you say, BT Home Hub is the worst- especially as the code is written on the back! Not only that (and not that I’ve tried!), but WEP is very easy to crack- 
      http://lifehacker.com/5305094/how-to-crack-a-wi+fi-networks-wep-password-with-backtrack

      I’ve heard of Yubico, and I really love the idea. The only problem is that I am hopeless at losing things. That’s why I use Last Pass. Last Pass can be used with Yubico- 
      http://helpdesk.lastpass.com/security-options/yubikey-authentication/ but I prefer using Google Authenticator. When I log into Last Pass, I put in my master password and then get a special code (which changes every 30 seconds or so) from the Google Authenticator app on my mobile phone. OK, I could lose my phone, but that’s less likely than losing a Yubico.

      Of course, all the above is probably above the average user. When it comes down to it, the majority of people are more vulnerable to security threats than the more tech savvy people.

    • Andrew Johnson

      If you restrict access to your Wi-Fi network to only known MAC addresses, then they also need to get the MAC address of one of your devices (easy if you also leave your laptop out as well)

      • http://iag.me/ Ian Anderson Gray

        Definitely good tips for your home network. That might be a bit tricky for non-techie people, but worth doing if you know how. Thanks for sharing!

  • David Haslam

    Correction: The first sentence should read WPA (or WPA2) not WAP.

  • David Haslam

    btw. The one downside to having a 63 character wireless network key is when you want to connect a Kindle. There’s no means other than entering it manually. For the model retailing at £89 with virtual keyboards, this involves frequent swapping between keyboard tabs, and on top of all that, there’s no backspace delete key!

    The USB port on a Kindle is only for charging the battery, so even having a Yubikey wouldn’t be a solution.

  • David Haslam

    How does LastPass cope with sites that ask you for randomly selected characters from your password? Each to be entered separately, and sometimes even by a mouse click via a virtual keypad with random layout.

    • http://iag.me/ Ian Anderson Gray

      LastPass autofills passwords for all your websites. You can customise how it does this and differentiate between different domain names, subdomains and whether to exclude certain ones. For sites (such as internet banking) where you have to select a randomly selected character from your password autofill won’t work, but you can still view your passwords or retrieve secure data from a secure note from visiting your LastPass secure vault. This information is also available offline and (if you pay for the premium version) available from your mobile device.

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  • http://seobpo.com/google-penguin-is-killing-you/ seo outsourcing

    The best way to keep your computer secure is being careful what website you visit! That is the first rule. A good antivirus is the back up!

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  • Soumya Ranjan Udgata

    Internet explorer is the most used browser man. Chrome is way behind even from the firefox. Dont give such suggestions.

    • http://iag.me/ Ian Anderson Gray

      Actually that’s not true according to most of the statistics out there. For March 2013, Statcounter shows Chrome usage at 38.07% and IE at 29.3%, WikiMedia shows Chrome at 44.06% and IE at 22.08%, W3Counter shows Chrome at 30.3% and IE at 24.6%, Clicky shows Chrome at 35.13% and IE at 33.38%. There are some exceptions- NetApplications shows Chrome at 16.45% and IE at 55.83% but that is an unusual one. IE has come a long way- it’s now got standards built in and is pretty secure, however Chrome is by far the most popular browser and is very secure. Other options are Firefox and Opera.

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  • Terri-lee Rae

    what is your opinion on the spybot program?? Its what i use …(along with microsoft security essentials prog)

    • http://iag.me/ Ian Anderson Gray

      I used to use Spybot quite a few years back. It used to be very good and I am sure it still is. I see no reason not to use it. These days I wouldn’t recommend Microsoft Security Essentials. It’s a shame because it used to be very good. Unfortunately Microsoft no longer spend the time and resources on it to make it as reliable as it could be. Avast is a very good free alternative.

  • Black

    Google Chrome the most secure browser? You don’t say… Its hardly the most secure :-? if you ask me firefox or opera are even more secure, plus they don’t request computer access like chrome, they don’t open a tone of windows in task manager so they can roll, they don’t consume to much ram unlike chrome which tends to be quite over the limit… by letting chrome on for 4-5 lets say 6 hours it will consume like 3 to 4 gb of ram, is that normal for a browser? And if you ask me which browser is more secure i would say firefox, not because i use it, but because of it apps, it has one for everything and they are free… you can even see the third party sites that are being accessed when you enter a site, you can see all the companies, sites and other places that are following you on each and every site you enter and even block then with an application that firefox suggests using for a safe surf on the internet. So internet explorer is not at all secure, but quite the opposite its full of flows, design problems… the only thing its good at is speed… so if you don’t about your privacy and your computer i suggest you stick with chrome and see later on who’s right.

    • http://iag.me/ Ian Anderson Gray

      Thanks for your comment. The topic of the “most secure browser” is a controversial one and many people have differing opinions. Security Expert and co-host of the Security Now podcast, Steve Gibson, advocates Firefox but he’s not against Chrome. Firefox is definitely more open than Chrome. As for security, I don’t think it is an easy one. Both Firefox and Chrome have had security flaws (Firefox patched a fairly substantial one recently).

      As for speed, I’ve found Chrome quicker than Firefox, but it depends on how you use it and how many extensions you have. I’ve certainly never seen Chrome use 3 or 4Gb RAM, but perhaps I am using it in a different way to you.

      These days Internet Explorer isn’t bad. It’s not my browser of choice, but the latest IE is pretty secure and pretty fast.

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