Privacy & Security

How to Keep Your Computer Secure and Private

April 14, 2009

in privacy & security

by David Hakala

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say. Many people fail to take the time to secure their computers against malware, only to lose many days struggling to eradicate viruses, Trojans, pop-up ad servers, and other vicious things from their computers. The irreplaceable data they lose hurts even more. The best cure for infection is to avoid getting it in the first place. But don’t go overboard with automated protection, and don’t rely on it alone.

Anti-malware software that keeps bad things out is a good thing, but too much can be a bad thing. Aside from the cost of multiple programs that scan for viruses, spyware, rootkits, etc., running multiple “anti” applications in background degrades computer performance. Achieving 99.9 percent protection would leave you no room for running any productive software.

Also, many popular “anti” programs are vulnerable to sophisticated, aggressive malware than can disable them. You may think you are protected until you notice some “anti” icons missing from your system tray.

So how can you keep your computer secure from intruders and your private data private? More effective than locks on the doors is prudent behavior.

Make sure you keep your operating system and industry-standard application software up to date, especially with security patches. New vulnerabilities in Microsoft Windows, Office, and other major software packages are found all the time. Bad guys quickly exploit these vulnerabilities with ‘improved” malware.

Use alternatives to industry-standard applications whenever possible. It makes sense that bad guys would write malware that targets the vulnerabilities of leading software packages with the largest numbers of potential victims. Instead of Office, try the free, open source OpenOffice. Instead of Internet Explorer, try an another Web browser such as Firefox, Opera, or Google Chrome. Instead of Adobe Reader for PDF files, try the lighter and equally free Foxit Reader.

Stay out of bad neighborhoods; you’re begging to be mugged. In particular, avoid sites that offer “free” or ridiculously discounted commercial software, activation serial numbers, product key generators, etc. Install anti-phishing plugins in your browser, such as WOT, LinkScanner Lite, Finjan SecureBrowsing or McAfee Site Advisor.

Never click on email attachments or links embedded in email sent by untrusted sources. Never install software you don’t fully trust without scanning it for malware, even if a good buddy gave it to you.

Keep a firewall up at all times. Windows Firewall is adequate, but there are other, more sophisticated products like ZoneAlarm, Online Armor, and Comodo.

Use a Windows limited user account for daily work. Most malware needs full administrator rights, the default user profile for Windows, in order to install itself. Don’t let it even get out of its “package” to infect your machine.

If you can’t live without administrator rights, at least restrict your browser, email client, and other application software with DropMyRights, a free utility that lets you create versions of programs that use the Internet with limited user rights while letting you keep running as a full administrator.

It takes time and a bit of discipline to keep your computer safe. But the alternative is potential ruin of all your data and thousands of dollars worth of software.

David Hakala has perpetrated technology tutorials since 1988 in addition to committing tech journalism, documentation, Web sites, marketing collateral, and profitable prose in general. His complete rap sheet can be seen at