Beginning in the Zhou Dynasty, which was in the 11th century BC, construction was begun on what was to become the Great Wall of China. For 2,700 years, culminating in the mid-1600s, construction continued on the wall until it stretched 4,163 miles from east to west China. The wall was constructed to prevent invasion by other states of China and outer tribes.
When you connect your PC to the Internet either through cable, dial-up, or DSL, it is like China prior to the Great Wall. Anyone can invade your PC, and plunder, pillage, and destroy content on your PC. A firewall acts just like the Great Wall of China. When installed, it acts as a barrier between your PC and the outside world. It prevents unwanted and unauthorized access to your PC over your Internet connection.
Firewalls come in two basic forms:
Hardware firewalls – hardware firewalls are a piece of hardware, like a PC, that gets installed between your PC and your Internet connection. Literally, a cable from your cable or DSL modem gets connected to the hardware firewall. Another cable is connected from the hardware firewall to your PC. When done, the hardware firewall acts as a barrier between your PC and the Internet. It lets you get out to the Internet, but it does not allow unauthorized access from the Internet to your PC. Many cable, DSL, and wireless routers/switches have firewalls built into them.
Software firewalls – A software firewall serves the same purpose as a hardware firewall. It, however, is software that gets installed directly onto your PC. The software monitors all inbound and outbound Internet traffic, and creates a software barrier between the Internet port into your PC and everything else on your PC. Once installed, it lets you get out to the Internet, but it does not allow unauthorized access from the Internet to your PC. Software firewalls have an advantage in that they can implement rigid controls over what software installed on your PC will be allowed to access the Internet.
Many people use both a hardware firewall and a software firewall. It is similar to having a fence to protect access to your yard, and then a front door to protect access to your house. Everyone should use at least one firewall, hardware or software. If you have a laptop, you should use a software firewall. That way the firewall goes with you, wherever you go, protecting your PC.
Find more information on software firewalls here.
Find more information on free software firewalls here.
Plug the Holes – Make Sure to Download Operating System Updates and Patches
By now, the security holes and flaws in Windows have become legendary. To their credit, Microsoft publishes a steady stream of fixes, patches, and update releases to plug all known security holes, flaws, and problems. In order for your PC to benefit from these patches and updates, you must, at a minimum, download and install the critical security updates that Microsoft makes available. You can do this one of two ways:
You may download and install them manually by visiting the “Microsoft Update” link on the Microsoft web site.
For newer versions of Windows, such as Windows XP, you can turn on the “Automatic Updates” feature of the operating system and allow the updates to be downloaded and installed automatically.
Either method works well. The “Automatic Updates” route takes the thought and work out of the process. Regardless of which method you choose, the important thing is to keep Windows up to date. Out of date versions of Windows can leave your PC open to hackers and viruses.
If you are using Mac OS or LINUX, then none of this applies. You are already using inherently more secure operating systems. It is still, however, important to install updates and patches to these operating systems as well to be up to date and to provide the best protection against unwanted intrusion.
Take Your Medicine – Install Antivirus Software
A computer virus is an unwanted software program that:
Gets loaded onto your PC
Replicates itself, meaning that it copies itself and distributes itself to other computers
A virus can get onto your computer from any of several sources, including:
From a removable disk
From an attachment to an e-mail message
From a download while surfing the web
From a worm through a known hole or flaw in your operating system
Once on your PC, the impact of a virus can range from relatively benign to rendering your PC unusable.
Antivirus software is software that you use to protect yourself from computer viruses. It can detect and remove known computer viruses. There are many excellent antivirus packages available that are relatively inexpensive. There are also several excellent antivirus packages available for free for home, non-commercial use.
Find more information on antivirus packages here
Find more information on free antivirus packages here
To prevent viruses form being able to harm your PC, you need to select one of the antivirus packages and install it on your PC.
TIPS: Make sure that your antivirus software is setup to:
Automatically check for updates so that its’ virus definitions database is up to date and you are protected from the latest threats. Most updates are provided on an annual subscription basis. Make sure that you renew your subscription when it expires. Free products, such as AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, provide the updates at no cost.
Automatically perform a virus scan at least once a week. If the PC is used to surf the web extensively then you may wish to perform virus scans more frequently, even once a day.
Stop the Spies – Install Anti-Spyware Software
Adware is any software that displays advertisements on your computer screen, either through banner advertisements within an application, or through pop-up windows. Spyware, which may also be known as a spybot, or tracking software, is computer technology installed on an individual’s PC that gathers information about them and their computer use. Adware and spyware removal software, or anti-spyware software, is software that is installed on your computer to combat the threats of adware and spyware. It will search your computer’s memory, file system, system registry, and browser caches for the existence of adware and spyware. It will then remove or quarantine any items that it finds. Adware and spyware removal software may also monitor for, and actively block, the downloading of spyware applications.
There are two excellent anti-spyware programs available for free, Ad-Aware SE Personal from Lavasoft, and Spybot Search & Destroy from Safer Networking Ltd. There are also many excellent anti-spyware packages that range in price from $19.95 to $39.95. Select and install one of these packages and run it on a regular basis.
Find more information on anti-spyware packages here
Find more information on free anti-spyware packages here
To prevent adware and spyware from being able to gather information about you, you need to select one of the anti-spyware packages and install it on your PC.
TIPS: Similar to antivirus software, make sure that your anti-spyware software is setup to:
Automatically check for updates so that its’ adware/spyware definitions database is up to date and you are protected from the latest threats. The two free packages, Ad-Aware and Spybot do not have automatic update features, so you will need to perform this task manually. Ad-Aware at least tells you that your definitions database is getting old and asks you if you want to update it.
Automatically perform an adware/spyware scan at least once a week. If the PC is used to surf the web extensively then you may wish to perform scans more frequently, even once a day. Ad-Aware SE Personal will only run automatically at system startup time. If you leave your computer on all of the time then you will have to remember to manually run the scans. Spybot can be scheduled to run automatically as one of its “Advanced Mode” features.
Spring Cleaning – Think About Privacy Software
As you use your computer, and surf the web, traces of your activity get left behind, stored on your computer in lists, temporary files, and caches. The best case is that these “leftovers” can clutter up your PC, and, with time, degrade its performance. The worst case is that someone who gains unauthorized access to your PC can read these files and learn a fair amount about you, potentially helping them to steal your identity.
Privacy software removes all traces of your PC and Internet activity, helping to protect your privacy.
As with antivirus software and anti-spyware software, privacy software should be run on a regular basis. It, too, can be setup to run automatically on a regular basis so that an end-user does not have to do anything to protect their privacy. The first time the privacy software is run it is not at all uncommon for it to recover in excess of 500MB of disk space by deleting the “leftover stuff” on your PC.
To prevent unauthorized intruders from being able to gather information about you, select one of the privacy packages and install it on your PC.
Think Before You Click – Use Some Common Sense
A little common sense can go a long way when trying to protect your PC. Most of what can compromise your security will come through e-mail, or when you are surfing the web. Because of this, you definitely need to think before you click. If you have not realized it already, most unsolicited e-mail is garbage. No matter how good the offer may sound, the common sense rule of “if it sounds too good to be true, it is…” applies. Most of what you receive unsolicited is designed to scam you out of money, to trick you into divulging private information, to install spyware and adware on your computer, or to install viruses on your computer.
Identifying Suspect E-Mails
So how do you identify the bad “stuff”? It actually is fairly easy to identify “suspect” e-mails. Common bad or suspect e-mails include:
E-mails from people or companies with whom you have never corresponded or conducted business. You may receive e-mails that you need to verify your account information from a company that you do not do business with. You may receive a message that looks like it is from eBay that says they are going to shut off your account and you have never done business with eBay. Individuals and groups trying to perpetrate fraud will go to great lengths to try to look like a legitimate business. You need to use common sense. If it does not “feel” right, it probably is not.
E-mails with gibberish in the title or in the body of the message.
E-mails from friends, relatives, or business associates that do not make any sense.
E-mails from yourself that you never sent or e-mails that are “returned” to you from someone that you have never corresponded with.
This list can go on forever with the many subtle variations. The bottom line is that if it does not feel right then consider it to be a bad e-mail.
Suspect e-mails should be deleted. Never click on links in suspect e-mails. Never open file attachments to suspect e-mails. Never reply or forward suspect e-mails. Simply delete them and move on.
Installing firewall software and antivirus software, and running anti-spyware software and privacy software should go a long way to protecting you when your are surfing. Here, again, some common sense applies. Avoid sites that do not “feel” right. Sites that are constantly trying to get you to fill out forms before you have much of a chance to learn anything about the site and the organization who owns the site are highly suspect. Pornography sites are famous for downloading spyware and viruses onto people’s computers. Stick to sites you know, the sites of reputable companies, and sites that come recommended by people you trust and you should be okay.
Protecting Your Kids
Now that you have taken care of the basics and protected you PC, it is time to specifically worry about keeping your kids safe. When trying to protect your children, it is important to:
Monitor and control what your children do online
Use some common sense
Setting Online Expectations
It is important for you as a parent to be clear with your children what you expect of them when they are using the PC. You need to be clear about what you consider to be appropriate online behavior, as well as what is and is not appropriate to be accessing online. Children should be taught:
That they should never give out personal information such as their name, address, e-mail address, phone number, or age to anyone over the Internet without your express permission.
That they should never fill out forms without your permission.
That they should tell you if they come across anything or anyone online that they feel is not appropriate or that makes them uncomfortable.
That they should ask before downloading or installing software on a PC.
That they should never, under any circumstances, arrange to meet alone with someone who they have met online. This can be especially important for your teenage children who may feel that they have met the boy or girl of their dreams online. If they feel that they absolutely must meet this individual, then they should arrange to do it with a responsible adult present. You should remind them that it is very easy for someone to masquerade as someone else online.
Monitor and Control What Your Children Do Online
The PC that your children use should be setup in a public location where it is easy for you to monitor what your children are doing. It is very difficult for a child to engage in questionable online activities when everyone in the family can easily look over their shoulder. If you have children who participate in chat rooms or use instant messaging software you should regularly ask them who they are communicating with. If they are evasive or do not tell you, take away their computer privileges. Having a safe mad child is better than having an unsafe happy one.
There is also software that can help parents protect their children. Software to help keep children safe comes in two forms: monitoring software, and parental control software.
Monitoring software allows parents to monitor activity on the family PC. Many packages will allow you to monitor computer activity including web surfing activity, e-mail messages, chat, and instant messaging. Some software will even allow screen shots to be taken at predetermined increments of time. Many of these packages will operate in stealth mode, meaning that no one will know that the software is even installed and running. Of course telling your children that you have software that is monitoring their activity may also act a a deterrent. Monitoring software typically does not filter out any bad content. It simply lets you know if someone is accessing things that are inappropriate.
Parental control software, or Internet filtering software, allows parents to control content that is displayed and block specific web sites. Some filtering software will filter e-mails and chat rooms, block pop ups, and even monitor chat rooms. This software is, by its very nature, more intrusive than monitoring software. It will filter out a lot of bad stuff. It may also miss some bad stuff. It may also filter out some good things.
The choice of which software to use will come down to personal preference. Some parents use both. If you choose to use no software than having the family PC in a public place and asking questions about what your children are doing online becomes much more important.
Use Some Common Sense
You should be aware if your child becomes secretive about what they are doing online. Averting a computer monitor, or quickly turning it off whenever someone walks into the room is not normal computer behavior. It is, however, the behavior of an individual who is trying to hide something. If your child is exhibiting “odd” computer behavior question them. If you get no answers or you do not like the answers, take away their computer privileges and/or get software that monitors their activity. As has already been stated, a mad safe child is better than a happy unsafe one.
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