*Ten Tips To Protect Your PC For Free*
By: Mick Chesbro
10 October 2003

While youíre surfing the web, exchanging e-mail with your friends and business associates, downloading games, music, and video files, shopping on-line, posting to the Rubicon, and generally enjoying your computer and Internet connection, there is a world of attackers just waiting to take over your system.

Hackers are scanning for computers connected to the Internet so they can snoop through their content or simply take over the computer for their own purposes. Big Brother, with projects like DCS1000 (Carnivore), is monitoring your private e-mail and tracking your connections on-line. Big Business is installing various "ad-ware" and "spy-ware" on your computer to track your on-line habits and purchases, all without your knowledge or permission. Criminals are releasing computer viruses, worms, and trojans to disrupt and destroy computer systems.

While these threats to our on-line security and privacy are certainly real and should be a serious concern to anyone who uses a computer and accesses the Internet, there are several things we can do to protect ourselves.

Although I mention and recommend some commercial products, the majority of these security tips are free, and even where I recommend a commercial product I have included a freeware option to that commercial product. (I have no pecuniary interest in any product listed herein.)

SoÖ without further introduction or a due I offer my top 10 computer security tips:

1. Install Anti-Virus Software - The first step in protecting your computer is to install anti-virus software. Quality anti-virus software will protect your computer against the viruses, worms and trojans that travel across the Internet attacking any vulnerable computers they find. There are various anti-virus programs available, and which one you use is somewhat a matter of personal preference. My personal preference is for Symantec Corporationís Norton Anti-Virus (http://www.symantec.com/nav/nav_9xnt/), which I believe to be the best anti-virus currently available. Another major anti-virus program is provided by McAfee Corporation (http://us.mcafee.com/virusInfo/default.asp). If you are strapped for cash you can still get anti-virus protection by downloading a freeware anti-virus program from AVG Anti-Virus (http://www.grisoft.com/us/us_dwnl_free.php). No matter which anti-virus program you choose, this is the first and perhaps most important step in protecting your computer from attackers.

2. Install A Firewall - A firewall protects your computer against direct attacks over the Internet. I personally use and recommend the Norton Personal Firewall (http://www.symantec.com/sabu/nis/npf/) from Symantec. You may also want to consider BlackICE Defender (http://blackice.iss.net/index.php) or Zone Alarm (www.zonelabs.com). Zone Alarm even offers a freeware version of their firewall. Any of these firewalls will provide protection against attacks directed at your computer while on-line.

3. Use Ad-Ware / Spy-Ware Removal Tools - Ad-Ware or Spy-Ware are programs used to track your purchases and shopping habits and to target you with advertising when you are on-line. By using programs such as Ad-Aware (http://www.lavasoftusa.com/) or Spybot Search and Destroy (http://www.safer-networking.org/) you can scan your computer for these programs and remove them from your system.

4. Encrypt Your E-mail - As your e-mail travels across the Internet it passes through multiple computer systems. At anyone of these systems your e-mail may be copied stored and read by other than its intended recipient. To keep your e-mail private it should be encrypted. The unofficial standard for e-mail security is PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), a security and encryption program created by Phil Zimmermann and released to the public back in 1991. I believe that PGP is absolutely essential for anyone who sends or receives e-mail. You can download your free copy of PGP from the PGP International site at http://www.pgpi.org/. PGP is also available as freeware from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's PGP Distribution Site at - http://web.mit.edu/network/pgp.html. The commercial version of PGP (along with a limited function freeware version) PGP Version 8 is available from PGP.Com http://www.pgp.com.

5. Use Secure Web-Based E-mail - Many of us maintain free web-based e-mail accounts as a way to protect our paid accounts. Hotmail get hacked again? Yahoo full of SPAM? Set up a secure web-based e-mail account. The two leading, secure, web-based e-mail systems (both of which I use and recommend) are HushMail (http://www.hushmail.com) and ZipLip (http://www.ziplip.com). Both HushMail and ZipLip offer free web-based secure/encrypted e-mail.

6. Secure Your Instant Messages - Instant messages allow us to chat on-line with friends, family and co-workers. Unfortunately instant messages are more like secrets shouted across a busy street than whispered quietly to a friend. Fortunately it is now possible to download a free, secure instant messenger from Hush.Com (the same people who make HushMail). Go to the HushMail web-site (http://www.hushmail.com) and download your copy of Hush Messenger. Itís about 10MB so it will take about half an hour if you use a dial-up connection, but it is definitely worth the time. With your Hush Messenger you can chat securely and privately with your friends on-line who also have Hush Messenger.

7. Store Your Files Securely - Do you have files you consider private? Would you rather not have your budget, diary, or secret plans to rule the world exposed to anyone who is able to gain access to your computer? Install PGP Disk on your computer thus creating a highly secure encrypted partition that stores your files so that they are only accessible to you. PGP Disk is available as part of the commercial version of PGP (http://www.pgp.com) and on some of the older freeware versions of PGP (http://www.pgpi.org/products/pgpdisk/). You may also want to consider installing a copy of ScramDisk (http://www.scramdisk.clara.net/) or its updated commercial counterpart DriveCrypt (http://www.securstar.com/). Both ScramDisk and DriveCrypt function similarly to PGPDisk, allowing you to created encrypted partitions or encrypt entire disks to protect your files and programs.

8. Protect Your Passwords - The password or pass-phrase is the key to most computer based security. If someone knows or is able to guess your password he will be able to access your secure systems as easily as you. The most secure passwords are long, complex, and never used to access more than one thing. Unfortunately, most of us use weak passwords and then use these passwords on more than one system. This problem is easily corrected by using a password safe to store and control our passwords. Privacy and security expert Bruce Schneier offers a freeware password safe (http://www.schneier.com/passsafe.html) as a highly effective way to manage your passwords.

9. Run Security Checks On Your Computer - To test the overall security of your computer you should regularly test your system for security vulnerabilities. The Symantec Corporation (makers of Norton Security Software) can conduct a free security check of your computer on-line. Go to (http://security.symantec.com) to test your computerís exposure to on-line threats and to learn how to make your system more secure.

10. Keep Your Operating System Up-To-Date - As vulnerabilities are discovered in a computerís operating system updates are published to correct these problems. If you are running Windows ™ as your operating system, and most of us are, you should regularly check for updates and make it a point to install these updates to your operating system. You can download and install free operating system updates from (http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com).

If you follow these 10 security tips you will have a very secure computer system. While no system can be 100% secure against a determined and skilled team of attackers the likelihood of your computer and its data being compromised is highly unlikely after you take these steps to protect yourself.
Mick Chesbro
Copyright © 2003 - Michael Chesbro

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