In contrast to just ten years ago, computers and smartphones are integral 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 cybercriminals 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 simplifying 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 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 integrated firewall built in to the operating system. Windows has the imaginatively titled "Windows Firewall" and Mac OS X has an integrated 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 affected 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
Most 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
If 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 on 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 into 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...!
These eight 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 it secure you use decent security settings on your wifi connection, and in particular, to use WPA or WPA2. It 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.