Safe Computing: Best Practices

I get asked questions about best practices for safe computing all the time and thought it would be a good idea to outline some policies that you can follow easily to help minimize damage to your computer.

Policy #1: Minimize or completely eliminate using Microsoft Internet Explorer

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is a web browser with a sordid history. Microsoft started bundling Internet Explorer with Windows 95 to compete with Netscape Navigator (source: Wikipedia) (now discontinued, but lives on to this day as Mozilla Firefox or Seamonkey). Microsoft now includes Internet Explorer with all versions of Windows and for this reason alone, most Windows users also use Internet Explorer for web browsing. My guess here is that most people don’t even know there are free (and safe) alternative web browsers. Internet Explorer is targeted constantly by hackers because it is so vulnerable. You don’t have to believe me, just go look at your Windows Updates for the last year. Almost every month Microsoft has to publish another “fix it” for Internet Explorer.

For this reason alone you should NEVER use Internet Explorer for casual browsing or web searches. EVER. Download and install Google Chrome (system-wide installer – available to all users on the computer, must be installed as a computer administrator), Mozilla Firefox or any other browser for daily/normal/casual browsing. Internet Explorer should only be used for trusted web sites (banks, etc.) and ONLY if you manually type the address you want to access into the address bar – NOT through searches – or for sites you have previously bookmarked that you KNOW are 100% safe.

I will add one quick note here. Some sites require Internet Explorer. Even in these rare cases I don’t use Internet Explorer. Instead I use (and trust) IE-tab which is made and distributed by http://ietab.net/. I cannot recommend or endorse any other IE-tab projects. I will also add that this only comes up with sites I need to access at work. I never need Internet Explorer at home.

Quick history notes… Netscape Communicator later became Mozilla Application Suite. Mozilla Application Suite later spun off a stand-alone browser Mozilla Firefox and a stand-alone email client Mozilla Thunderbird but also kept the entire suite going with a separate project known as SeaMonkey. Long story.

Policy #2: Trust NOTHING. Don’t fall for spam/phishing/other messages

Don’t trust anything. Only open email messages and attachments IF YOU ARE EXPECTING THEM and ONLY if you TRUST the sender.

Q: I just got an email from someone I know, should I trust it?

A: Email them and ask them if they sent it. If they reply, open it. If they don’t reply, delete it.

Oh, PERIOD. If you aren’t sure, pick up a phone and call them. Or email them. In either case, WAIT.

Policy #3: Force computer users to login to their own user account

This policy only applies to computers that are used by multiple people.

Create new user accounts for other users in your house who might need/want to use your computer. If the user understands and practices safe computing it might be safe to make that person a computer administrator – just understand that if they get an infection it will be harder for you to fix later. If you aren’t sure if the new user practices safe computing OR if the new user is a child, make the new user account a normal user or a child account. This holds true for any operating system, Linux, Mac… doesn’t matter.

In the Windows world, Windows 8 and higher “child accounts” are possible directly from Windows Control Panel. For Windows 7 (or 8) you can use Microsoft Family Safety (source: Wikipedia) which is included in Windows Essentials 2012 (Windows 7, 8, Server 2008), Windows Live Essentials 2011 (Windows 7 or Vista) or Windows Live Essentials 2009 (Windows XP).

In Windows new user accounts can be created here: Start > Control Panel > User Accounts. Normal user accounts and child user accounts can still be infected by viruses and baddies… but only their account is infected. This means that the infection can’t spread to the entire computer – which will save you countless hours of time when trying to clean up someone else’s mess.

Policy #4: Make all users (including yourself) log off when they are done using the computer

This policy only applies to computers that are used by multiple people.

If you skip this policy then you might as well completely ignore Policy #2. By logging out you are forcing the next user to log in with their user name and password which then limits them to normal or child access to the computer. If you fail to log out and they start downloading and installing things under your account – they will be doing this AS YOU with your access level and the ability to infect the entire computer.

More to come…

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