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Safe Computing

It seems like I get asked basically the same computer-related question every couple of weeks or so. So I’ve decided to write the end-all, be-all computer security advice page, where all future queries can be directed!

Computer Security 101

Q: How do I keep my computer secure?
A: Get a Mac. If you have the funds, and are really into media (photography, creating DVDs and home movies), it’s actually not that much of a price difference (if any) once you include all of the (very high quality) software that comes included with every Mac. You also save on not having to buy lots of security software.

Seeing as though most people do not consider the above a realistic option, we’ll ask a more specific question:

Q: How do I keep my Windows (XP or Vista) PC secure?
A: By following the steps outlined below…

1. DO NOT use Internet Explorer as your web browser. Use Firefox instead. Why? Because I said so. http://getfirefox.com

2. Make sure you’re running Windows XP SP 2 or later. The easiest way to find out is to watch the progress bar that appears while windows is loading. If the bar is blue, you’re good. If it’s green, it’s time to update. More on that in step 4.

3(a). Use a hardware firewall. If you’ve got a wireless router so you can use your laptop all over the house, you’re already in business. If not, a new router/firewall will set you back about $50. They’ve gotten easier to install over the years, but can still be tricky for a novice. Find a neighborhood geek and invite him over for a nice steak dinner.

3(b). Use a software firewall (If you don’t have a hardware firewall like the one mentioned above). If you have WindowsXP SP2, you will have the windows firewall by default. That should be good for most people. It has caused me issues in the past, so I have it disabled. But for the average person, it should work just fine. If you want a more robust (in my opinion) software firewall, check out ZoneAlarm or Comodo Personal Firewall.

4. Turn on (and leave on) windows automatic updates. Anytime a security patch is release by Microsoft, you will get it if you have automatic updates applied. Go to Start -> All Programs -> Windows Update. This will take you to the windows update site. Check the boxes to have all critical updates applied. At some time, you will be asked if you want automatic updates to occur. Say yes. Then make sure you keep your PC on during the time that updates would be applied (typically in the middle of the night…but you can configure it to another time if you so choose).

5. Run Anti-Spyware programs. Back when we all schlepped around floppies, our biggest concern was viruses. In the internet age, it’s mostly spyware. I could go in to excruciating detail on what it is and why it sucks, but trust me, you don’t want spyware on your machine. So I recommend running multiple anti-spyware programs on a regular basis. With spyware and viruses, it’s just like with our own bodies, prevention is the best medicine. That being said, here are a few (free) anti-spyware programs you should have:

I also use a pay version (approx $20/year) called SpySweeper. You can pick it up at Best Buy, Circuit City, etc…or just get it online here.

6. Anti-Virus. I’m not really keen on most anti-virus products these days. The old vanguards (McAfee and Norton) have become so bloated and overbearing that I’ve had to take them off my system. It seems (empirically) that my machine becomes anywhere from 10-25% slower once I install either of these products. For me, the protection does not outweigh the reduced performance.

If you’re just itching to have antivirus, knock yourself out. I’m sure they’ll help protect you from viruses. But if you pratice “safe computing”, it shouldn’t be as big of an issue. If you need specific anti-virus recommendations, just email me.

**UPDATE** A pretty-decent free anti-virus product to try is: AVG

Most of your threats these days are from spyware anyway. You don’t really need it (my opinion), if you use….

7. Use a good web-based mail service. If you’re using a good web-based email service (Gmail or Yahoo! mail), they have antivirus built in. Any attachments you download will automatically be scanned for viruses. Gmail and Yahoo are not the only ones doing this, so if you don’t use them, just check to make sure that your email provider scans attachments for viruses. If they don’t, move on to someone (Gmail is my preference) who does.

8. Get an external hard drive. A fairly decent drive can be had for roughly $100. Once you have said drive, perform regular (read: nightly) backups. Windows Vista has a built-in backup solution. Or you could use something a little more powerful like SyncBack.