Taking out the trash: Keeping your computer safe

August 10, 2010

windows

As a part of my site restoration, this page was salvaged and may not be up to date Who hasn't experienced his computer popping up windows, being slow with strange new programs in your start menu. If that's the case it's likely that you're computer is infected with a virus, trojan or spyware. I'm writing this article because people keep asking me the same questions and I hope this can provide further help. This article covers a very wide area in a short period of time so it assumed that the reader has at least basic computer skills.

How did this get into my computer?

  1. Security vulnerabilities in your operating system and/or programs
  2. Users are being tricked into installing this filth themselves
  3. "Extras" with "free" software

The Danger?

Way too many users today have considered it normal for their computers to be infected with viruses, spyware and other filth.

Computers that are infected are being used for

  • Attacks on companies and institutions
  • Collection of personal information for marketing companies
  • Sending junk-email (spam) and collection of email addresses for that purpose
  • Spreading the filth

What can I do?

It's in your power to change this. In fact it's much easier to prevent your computer from becoming infected than it is to fix it afterwards.

User privileges?

If you use an "Administrator" account on your computer for daily use you are compromising your computer needlessly. Most daily tasks can be done without that access and it should be purely used when you want something installed or changed on the computer. On Windows XP you can create three types of users. "Limited User", "Power User" and "Administrator". You want to use "Limited User" for every person on the computer and only one "Administrator" account, password protected for installations or system changes. If you make sure that everyone in your home use a "limited" access you can sleep easy at night knowing that they can probably not mess anything up but their own user account.

Browser

One of the biggest security holes in the Windows operating system is the browser, Internet Explorer and it is the largest cause of infections for computers. I personally recommend either Firefox or Opera. These are both good browsers and a chance of exploitation is less than with Internet Explorer. Every so often you will visit a web page that requires Internet Explorer... In that case I recommend IE Tab for Firefox which allows you to run Internet Explorer from within Firefox for specific web pages.

Update? What's that?

The most common misunderstanding of computer users is that they think it's enough to install the right program and then the computer will work as it should for years without problems. The fact however is that all computer programs have some flaws so it is very important to update your computer regularly.

Windows Update

Windows Update is your best friend (if you bought your copy that is) but there you can update most programs from Microsoft. In your start button there is usually a link to "Windows Update" or under the Tools bar in Internet Explorer. I recommend people updating their computers at least once a week. If you are the lazy type like I am you can use "Automatic Updates" but Microsoft recommends that. Then Windows will let you know when updates are ready for your computer in the bottom right corner (near the clock).

What about Firewalls?

A firewall serves the disputed purpose of keeping other computers from connecting to yours. Not unlike having a moat around your house. The fact is that if you leave your keys under your welcome mat the moat won't keep the Black Knight at bay, only slow him down. The core problem lies in the security flaws in the operating system (or programs) but in most cases it won't hurt to have some extra security. I recommend people keep the Windows XP (SP 2) firewall running by default.

Free smileys? Free games?

One of the most common ways for those who write "evil" programs to get them installed is offering it "FREE" on the Internet. Some examples are "Smiley Central" or "Weather Applet". Both of those programs contain a software designed to spy on you. Free games also have the tenancy to infect computers with filth. If you are in doubt before installing a program. Just type the name of the program into Google and keep your eyes open for word such as "trojan", "spyware", "virus", "malware". Open Source programs however are in most cases harmless and I do recommend their use.

My computer is infected :'(

Unfortunately computers from time to time get infected by all sorts of filth. It's important to be able to identify the two major categories that infect home computers.

Spyware

Spyware has become very common where marketing companies make money of collecting personal information about people. Information like what web pages you like, what interests you and then they will either sell this information or send you advertisements or popup windows based on your habits. The worst thing you can do is to click or buy something you received through unwanted ads. By doing that you're sponsoring the abuser of your privacy. Free software to remove Spyware/Adware:

Install one of those tools. Do not mix them on your computers, it will only slow it down and possibly cause conflicts between the programs.

Viruses and Trojans

Viruses are software that will reproduce itself and uses security holes to automatically spread itself. Viruses are though becoming second to trojans and spyware that are spreading faster. Trojans aren't unlike viruses but they gain access to the computers by tricking the user to let them in. As an example is an e-mail that says "Your computer is infected by a virus. Install this program to clean your computer". It is very common that the attachment is in fact a trojan and will use your computer to keep spreading.

Free software to remove viruses and trojans

But my computer is still a mess :'(

Sometimes the programs dig themselves so deep into the operating system that it's almost impossible to get them out without spending many hours of expert help to fix it. Then it's usually quickest to copy all your documents, setup your operating system again and learn from the experience. Most computer stores have some sort of a technical workshop and can clean or re-install for you.

About the article

I wrote this because I felt like i was always answering the same qustions and people in general are very unaware of security on their computers when connected to the Internet.

References