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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