Monday, June 21, 2010

Talking Security: A Quick Security Guide for Beginners

Even the most novice of computer users have probably heard the words virus, trojan, or malware at least once in their life. That is why you should have at least a basic understanding when it comes to security with your PC, regardless of your technical competence. Hopefully, I’ll be able to cover a comprehensive guide for novice Windows users that need basic protection, but don’t really need to go overboard.


I’ll briefly go over different topics and use them as a jumping board for further in-depth articles later on. Basically, this initial piece will get the average user up and ready, if you prefer to go any further, you can check out my later works of creations as I write them. (Keep in mind, all of the software that I mention below is free of charge for home users. However, free software is sometimes just as good, if not better, than some of the other proprietary software that is available.)

Things you should know/do

Update, update, update. You should always strive to keep all of your software up-to-date with the latest security patches. This is quite simple for Microsoft software. If you have left the default settings for Windows Update turned on, Windows will automatically install software/security updates for you PC on a weekly basis. Microsoft always publishes security updates on the second Tuesday of every month. However, from time to time, Microsoft will offer out of band updates as well, which is why it is smart to check for updates on a weekly basis versus setting it to a monthly basis.


Most other programs offer some type of auto-update as well. For example, both Firefox and Adobe Flash will notify users when new updates are ready to be installed.


Keeping your operating system and software up-to-date with the latest security patches may be one of the easiest ways of keeping your PC secure on the Internet.


Install Anti-Virus software and make sure it’s up to date. I use and highly recommend Microsoft Security Essentials for any type of Anti-Virus needs. There are several reasons for this; however, I primarily like MSE for its simplicity and effectiveness. There are, of course, several alternatives to using MSE such as Grisoft’s AVG, Avast, and Malwarebytes, just to name a few. However, none can come close to MSE when comparing the ease of use, out of the way and overall efficiency and effectiveness of Microsoft’s latest AV program.


Finally, as with other updates, you should make sure to update your AV software as well. Every program that I mentioned earlier enables auto-update by default. This is where MSE really shines though. It will install updates every day behind the scene without users ever aware of what’s going on. It protects without you needing to do anything about it. MSE just works, plain and simple.


[Further reading: Microsoft Security Essentials Up-Close]


Use a firewall. The default firewall included with Windows XP SP2 or higher, Vista, or 7 should suffice for the average user (it does for me anyways). However, if you really need something that goes above and beyond, ZoneAlarm may be the choice for you. I used to use this firewall back during my Windows XP days, but have since switched to using the basic Windows 7 firewall for all of my PCs. Ultimately, as long as you use/enable one of these two firewalls (not both, however) you should be fine.


Have a good password policy. This doesn’t mean you need to have an ultra-secure 32 character password that changes on a weekly basis. However, for the average user a good strong password may be anything 8-12 characters long. It should include numbers, lower- and upper-case letters. Also, adding a couple symbols (i.e. @, #, or %) can spice up the security of any password as well. PCTools offers a great password generator at their site (there’s both an online and downloadable version, I prefer the downloadable one, though they both do the same thing). You should also make sure to change your password from time to time. I recommend changing your password at the bare minimum every 90-days. And, under no circumstances, should you use the same password for all of your different accounts. If you follow this simple advice, you will more than likely not be subject to your account being hacked. (Although I can’t make any guarantees, I have never had any of my accounts hacked and have used this criteria for all of my password needs).


Backup your data. I can’t stress this enough. If you’re not already backing up your data at least once a month, I suggest you start doing it now. Really, this step isn’t that hard. Although it’s the only one that may not necessarily be free. I use several methods to back up my data, some of which are free, and some of which I have had to pay for.


First, I have an external 1TB Hard Drive for backing up all of my PC’s data. You can pick one of these up from Newegg for about $80. If you don’t have such large storage needs as myself, you can choose a smaller hard drive, such as a 500GB for $60.


For my more important data, such as any articles I write, work, or school, I sync to the cloud via Microsoft Live Mesh (soon to be Live Sync [link soon!]). This offers users 5GB of storage data on the cloud or you can sync files from PC to PC for unlimited data (or as much as the PC’s hard drives can handle). I highly recommend using this solution or something similar, as it provides with an almost perpetual backup. (Live Mesh and Live Sync are both free as well.)


Windows 7 (as well as Vista for that matter) offers a great backup utility to help automate simple backups on a schedule. I’ll try to write up a Windows 7 Up-Close article on this as soon as I can, as I find that the Windows 7 backup tools offer a lot that some people don’t even know exist, such as cloning an entire hard drive. It’s great stuff.


Keeping a backup of all your data can come in handy if you ever do happen to get a virus, as it will make the pain of reinstalling Windows much easier to deal with. Ultimately though, backing up your data is somewhat of a last resort method, if all else fails, you still at least have your important files. I actually recommend backing up your data at least once a week (and if you use one of the syncing programs I mentioned above, your very important documents can be backed up almost perpetually.)

Wrapping it up

I think that’s about it for now. I’ll update this on an on-going basis as things change and new programs/products come out that may suit your needs better. As I mentioned earlier, I also plan to use this article as a jumping ground for further articles, so stay tuned as I’ll post the links to this article once I start getting those done. If you have any recommendations, suggestions, or comments, you can contact me via Twitter, e-mail, or leave a comment below and I’ll try to get back to you as soon as I can.


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