Not surprisingly, safeguarding your home computer from hackers, viruses, spam, phishing attempts and spyware has been at the forefront of technology issues during 2004. As more and more consumers take advantage of rock-bottom prices for new desktop systems and as the number of households using broadband access (vs. dial-up) vastly increased, it has simultaneously opened the door to much mischief by unscrupulous hackers and phishers. Here’s what you need to know and what you need to implement – regardless if you are on a Mac or PC.
I have found three other excellent articles like this one, Security Practicum: Essential Home Wireless Security Practices, Who says safe computing must remain a pipe dream? and Zombie Repellent, although they lack the specific product recommendations.
The Principal Threats Defined
- Hackers are computer experts that try to break into your computer system to obtain confidential information or anything else of value. Hacking attempts have become easier, as many consumers have a constantly on connection to the internet, such as cable or DSL-modem. Learn more »
- Phishing is the luring of sensitive information, such as passwords and other personal information, from a victim by masquerading as someone trustworthy with a real need for such information. Today, online criminals put phishing to profitable uses. Popular targets are users of online banking services, and auction sites such as eBay. Phishers usually work by sending out spam e-mail to large numbers of potential victims. These direct the recipient to a Web page which appears to belong to their online bank, for instance, but in fact captures their account information for the phisher’s use. Learn more »
- Spammers send out millions of unsolicited email offers in an attempt to get a unsuspecting few to send them money for services or products. Learn more »
- Spyware or Adware is software that was inadvertently installed on your computer while you installed other software. The spyware logs all your keystrokes and sends the information back to the phisher. Learn more »
- Viruses are software programs that mostly come as attachments to spam email. Once the attachement is opened from your system, it unleashes its havoc – from erasing your harddrive to rendering it uselessly slow. Learn more »
- Trojan Horses are email attachements that look innocent, but carry viruses hidden inside. They should be treated just like viruses. Learn more »
What You Need to Safeguard Your Computer
Although none of the following measures will provide you with 100% security, they serve one important purpose: they make it harder for the hacker/phisher/spammer to attack your computer, making them go for your neighbor’s unprotected computer system instead.
Usually, there is only one company servicing your area – most likely the company that already provides your cable TV. With its contract, you should get a free cable modem. Plug the coax cable into your modem, and use an ethernet cable to connect the modem to the router/firewall.
Wireless Broadband Router/Firewall
There are many routers out there, I recommend the Linksys Wireless-G Broadband Router WRT54G – it’s cheap (about $60, check price), easy to set up and simply works. Connect your computer to the router via an ethernet cable.
The Linksys Wireless-G Broadband Router is really three devices in one box:
- The Wireless Access Point lets you connect Wireless-G or Wireless-B devices as well as wired-Ethernet devices (Wireless-G is faster than Wireless-B).
- The Hub functionality lets you connect four computers or devices such as printers directly to easily create your home network.
- The Router function ties it all together and lets your whole network share a high-speed cable or DSL Internet connection, files, and other resources such as printers and hard disk storage space.
In addition, the router can encode all wireless transmissions to protect your data and privacy, and protects your PC from most known Internet attacks with a powerful Stateful Packet Inspection firewall. This firewall cloaks your computer from anybody trying to hack into your computer – for the outside world, your computer isn’t even there!
The Software Firewall is different from the Hardware Firewall in that it monitors incoming and outgoing Internet traffic. If you get a lot of unwanted traffic from a certain source you can block that traffic. Alternatively, if spyware were to initiate contact to the phisher’s system, your software firewall would detect the attempt and ask you to authorize it. As such, you will train the software firewall over time so that it remembers what your system is allowed to send out.
On a PC:
If your PC has Windows XP Service Pack 2 installed, it comes with a software firewall. I disabled mine, and downloaded a better one from ZoneLabs. It’s free, more robust, and outperformed the Windows Firewall. Also, read the PC World article on Tweaking Windows SP2.
On a Mac OS X:
Due to the prevalence of PCs, most hackers go after PCs – resulting in little threat to Mac users. In addition, the Mac operating system is a self-contained box that doesn’t allow programs to start up on their own will. Hence, there are not many software firewalls – I’d choose Little Snitch if you’re so inclined.
I’d go with something established such a Norton or McAfee. Remember, McAfee only provides software for the Windows platform, while Norton provides software for both Macintosh and Windows. Install it, update the virus definitions, then run a scan of your system. The software will identify known viruses, then allow you to remove it from your system. I strongly recommend to enable the automatic update of virus definitions, and to have it running in the background.
There’s several free ones out there for the Windows platform, my top-choice is Spybot Search and Destroy. Download it, install it, update the spyware definitions, then run a scan of your system. The software will identify spyware/adware, then allow you to remove it from your system. Run every month or so. If you’re using a Macintosh system: there isn’t any spyware removal software that I am aware of.
Other Prudent Behaviours
- Download only from reputable sources. I download only from download.com – run by CNET. The CNET editors keep an eye out for black sheep, so you know that their listings only feature legitimate sources.
- Backup your entire computer system – on DVD and on an external harddrive. It’s not a matter of if your system crashes but when. You’ll thank yourself once disaster strikes.
- Modify your online behavior: Check out CNET article by Bruce Schneier, Who says safe computing must remain a pipe dream? and PC World column Zombie Repellent by Michael Desmond.
- On a Macintosh: Repair permissions regularly, and clean out your computer. Onyx and Mac Janitor.
- Have automatic software updates enabled (Win and Mac), patch any security flaws immediately.
- Abandon Microsoft Internet Explorer. Due to its myriad of security flaws, it’s just better to switch to a more robust browser such as Firefox. Check out the comparison of IE vs. Firefox.
- Turn off your computer at night. If your computer or modem doesn’t run, your system is safe from third parties. Simple as that.
- Protect your privacy while surfing the Internet. Read more.
- Read the related article, Securing Your Mac.