Back to School 101: Security Software

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Summer’s almost over and if you’ve got a stu­dent in your fam­ily, it’s time to start think­ing about prep­ping their com­puter to safely return to Hog­worts school.

Prop­er com­puter secur­ity is a defens­ive game. You want to build pro­cesses (both soft­ware and beha­vi­our­al) that encase your com­put­ing envir­on­ment in a series of pro­tect­ive shells, pro­tect­ing the data (through backups) pro­tect­ing the soft­ware and sys­tem integ­rity (through anti-vir­us scans and mon­it­or­ing), and pro­tect­ing what gets to your com­puter (through device and net­work mon­it­or­ing).

Com­puter secur­ity is a very com­plex top­ic, but luck­ily, there’s a few great pro­grams out there that do all the heavy lift­ing for you, let­ting you worry about doing your com­put­ing thing, while they do their secur­ity thing.

Cur­rently there are two main ‘fla­vours’ of soft­ware — Com­puter Mon­it­or­ing Suites that watch for mali­cious beha­viour or activ­ity with you drives and data, and Inter­net Suites that mon­it­or incom­ing and out­go­ing net­work activ­ity, email, attach­ments, etc for  mali­cious beha­viour or activ­ity. You can find some excel­lent pack­ages by Norton and Kasper­sky here

As well, if you’re run­ning Win­dows, you should check out Microsoft Secur­ity Essen­tials. On a Macin­tosh? Check out Sophos for some advice.

Safe Com­put­ing
Your com­puter is a portal to your life. You bank with it, make dates with it, and even devel­op your future career with it (next face­book any­body?). So it makes sense to devel­op a ‘safe com­put­ing’ philo­sophy.

But before we get star­ted
A few simple, yet essen­tial things that will make your com­put­ing life more secure:

  1. Dis­able any ‘auto run’ or ‘auto launch’ set­ting of your oper­at­ing sys­tem. In win­dows, this fea­ture scans any newly-moun­ted drive or device for an autoexec.bat or autorun file and tries to execute it. If the drive you’re mount­ing has mal­ware on it, simply stick­ing the USB drive into your port will cause that mal­ware to run, and *poof*, you’re com­puter has mal­ware run­ning on it.
  2. Backup Often. No mat­ter what you do, your data is nev­er totally safe on a com­puter. A backup (or two) of that data is the best way to ensure you nev­er lose any­thing that is really import­ant to you.
  3. Get good com­puter secur­ity soft­ware from a reput­able vendor. I’d sug­gest check­ing out one of the pack­ages

Think­ing about com­puter secur­ity
One thing to do when you’re going to be using a com­puter in a new envir­on­ment is to con­sider the risks and poten­tial issues. I do this by ask­ing myself a few ques­tions:

  1. do I have com­plete and cur­rent backups of things I can’t afford to lose or can’t eas­ily replace (doc­u­ments, term papers, pho­to­graphs, etc)?
  2. am I going to be using stor­age devices from oth­er people (USB Drives)?
  3. do I trust the net­works I con­nect my hard­ware to?
  4. am I plan­ning to run soft­ware from a ‘ques­tion­able’ source?
  5. do I fre­quently scan my hard­ware for mal­ware and vir­uses?

My answers to these ques­tions will shape my safe com­put­ing philo­sophy, and guide my decisions around vari­ous activ­it­ies and sug­gest strategies to bet­ter pro­tect my hard­ware.

Here’s my answers to those ques­tions:

  1. Yes. Incre­ment­al backups 3 times a week. Monthly I rotate my backups to a secure off­s­ite loc­a­tion (so the most I should lose in a fire, etc, is only one month’s data).
  2. Pos­sibly. So I’ve dis­abled any auto-execute set­tings in my oper­at­ing sys­tem, and manu­ally scan any for­eign USB stick or drive that I plan to con­nect to my com­puter.
  3. Mostly. If not, I’ve got a fairly robust fire­wall run­ning with a mod­er­ately high secur­ity set­ting.
  4. Pos­sibly. Because run­ning soft­ware from untrus­ted sources is very com­mon (that cool pro­gram that auto-tweets your World of War­craft stats writ­ten by your guil­die) I have a back­ground anti-vir­us / anti-mal­ware pro­gram run­ning. It mon­it­ors your sys­tem for mali­cious beha­viour and alerts you to poten­tial prob­lems.
  5. Yes. It’s great that I’ve got live sys­tem mon­it­or­ing hap­pen­ing, but it’s entirely pos­sible that some­thing bad could have got­ten on to my sys­tem. So a reg­u­lar scan of my hard­ware should uncov­er any­thing that may be lying dormant or undetec­ted by the pre­vi­ous meas­ures.

Caveat.
No secur­ity sys­tem is fool­proof. No mat­ter how many pre­cau­tions you take, your sys­tem could con­tract a vir­us or become a vic­tim of mal­ware. It hap­pens.

But by keep­ing reg­u­lar backups, and employ­ing a layered approach to your per­son­al com­puter secur­ity, you can reduce the like­li­hood that it will hap­pen to you, and if it does, you can more quickly recov­er with min­im­al data loss.
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