Keep Your Computer Safe on the Internet

by Leo A. Notenboom

Keep Your Computer Safe on the Internet: Lately it seems like not a day goes by we don't hear about some new kind of threat aimed at wreaking havoc across machines connected to the internet. Here are three things you can, and should, do to stay safe.

Virii & Spyware & Worms ... oh my!

Lately it seems like not a day goes by we don't hear about some new kind of threat aimed at wreaking havoc across machines connected to the internet. While products other than Microsoft's are certainly vulnerable, due to anti-Microsoft sentiment coupled with the massive installed base, Microsoft products seem to provide an irresistible target for hackers and "script kiddies".

Here are three things you can, and should, be doing to stay safe.

Use a Firewall - A firewall is a piece of software or hardware that sits between you computer and the internet, and only allows certain types of things to cross the wall. For example a firewall may allow email and web browsing, but disallow things that are commonly not as useful such as RPC or "Remote Procedure Calls". It's vulnerabilities in RPC that, in fact, allowed for one of the more recent worms to propagate. (If you're using a phone to dial-in to the internet, a firewall is not as important, though it doesn't hurt to have one. A software firewall may be your only option, though.)

Virus Scan - Sometimes, typically in email, virii are able to cross the wall and end up on your computer anyway. A virus scanner will locate and remove them from your hard disk. A real time virus scanner will noticed them as they arrive, even before they hit the disk, though at the cost of slowing down your machine a little. Important: because new virii are arriving every day, it's important to keep your virus definitions up-to-date. Be sure to enable the scanning software's automatic-update feature and have it do so every day.

Kill Spyware - Spyware is similar to virii, in that they arrive unexpected and unannounced and proceed to do something undesired. Normally spyware is relatively benign from a pure safety perspective, but can violate your privacy by tracking the web sites you visit, or can be annoying as "features" you didn't ask for are added to your system. The worst offenders are spyware that hijack normal functions for themselves - for example redirecting your web searches to other sites to try and sell you something. Of course there is such poorly written spyware that it might as well be a virus, given how unstable it can make your system. The good news is that, like virus scanners, there are spyware scanners that will locate and remove the offending software.

There are plenty of other steps, rules of thumb and tricks that can help you be more secure, but those are the biggies. Visit my recommendations page for some of the specific packages and options available to address these areas.

Above all, follow the golden rule of internet safety: If You're Not Sure, Don't. Did you just receive an attachment in email and you're not sure who sent it, or what it is? Don't open it. When visiting a web site, did you get a pop-up asking if it's ok to install some software you're not sure of because you've never heard of it? Don't say "OK". Not sure about some security warning you've been given? Don't ignore it.

by Leo A. Notenboom Copyright 2004 Puget Sound Software, LLC

Leo A. Notenboom is a software engineer and entrepreneur who worked for Microsoft for many years, either developing some of the company's best known software or managing other engineers who did. When he left he started his own software engineering company and consulting firm, Pudget Sound Software. In addition to the services offered through, Leo runs the the popular Ask Leo! technical support site ( Leo can be reached at [email protected].

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