Tech Tips For Your New Year
by Brent Simon
Brent here, the friendly Internet and technology technician for the Colorado Bar Association. I’d like to wrap up this year with my perspective on how to keep your computer safe and clean, allowing your computer time to remain efficient and fun. We’re going to knock out the three biggest threats: spyware/malware, viruses and hackers. Oh my! I’ll cover the basics of keeping your computer clean and safe. Cleaning solutions, especially when you get three of them (antispyware, antivirus and a firewall), are expensive! Don’t fret friends; my solutions are legit and free.
What are these threats and why is it important to protect yourself from these? Let’s start from the top:
Spyware/Malware. Basically, this is software that is unintentionally installed on your computer that gathers information about how you surf the Web. This software also can do things like key-logging (see the keys you type in) and hijacking (you go where they want you to, like it or not; like pop-up ads or setting a new home page).
How do you get these and how bad are they? When you install legitimate software, there are check-boxes of options during the install process. Far too often, people click "next" as fast as they can during the install, passing the options that would restrict spyware, and promising their first-born child to Microsoft in their EULA (End User License Agreement, just click "I Accept"; everyone else does.). Another way to get Spy/Malware is through "free" software you see online, like pop-up ads that advertise free smiley faces, or ads that suggest you install a product because your computer is infected.
Before we talk about removing Spyware/Malware, let’s ask, why are they there in the first place? Malware is there to, well, be malicious. It is the bad software that steals your passwords and hijacks your computer. Malware exists because certain nerds have black hearts; don’t worry, they won’t get anything for Christmas, that’s more than enough punishment. Spyware is almost legitimate — almost. Like the name suggests, Spyware spies on your Internet usage to gather information for marketing. What’s your payoff? A bogged-down system because your computer has to send information to other computers so people know how to build the Internet to sell to you.
Here’s an example to illustrate my point. Spyware is similar to the grocery store cards you use to save money at a particular store. That’s Spyware in your wallet or on your keychain. You use the card and all of what you bought is sent to a computer somewhere where it’s analyzed: "This customer bought pop and chips. Our chip sales are down; put pop on sale and we’ll sell more chips."
Let’s get rid of this Spy/Malware. My weapon of choice is "Spybot — Search & Destroy," and it can be found at http://safer-networking.org for free. Install this application and not only will it clean up your spyware, it also will prevent it from getting to you in the first place with a cool immunization feature. The writer of this program does it for free, dedicates it to "the most wonderful girl on earth," does it in almost every language imaginable and, most importantly, accepts donations; if you like the product and what this guy stands for, throw him a couple of dollars.
Viruses. Most of us know or have a vision of what a virus is. It is software that gets installed on your computer, but has a much more detrimental impact than spy/malware. Viruses can do anything from giving complete control of your computer to the owner of the virus, to deleting your files, to locking you out of your own machine. Viruses are bad news; let’s defend against them.
My favorite solution, also free and legit, is AVG from Grisoft, found at http://free.grisoft.com. This company makes its money by selling really big solutions that take care of all threats — like a firewall and anti-spyware and keeping your computer clean — but its anti-virus product is free. The program isn’t as intuitive as Spybot; however, the threat isn’t as simple. AVG, especially as you first start using it, will pop up and warn you about actions you’re taking and ask if you want to continue doing them. As you select yes and no, it will remember your selections and eventually you will see a lot less of the AVG pop-ups.
Hackers. The difference between this threat and the others is that hackers usually are very target-specific (they find you). It’s not something you download; rather, you can potentially be attacked anytime you’re on the Internet. Firewalls are used to keep you safe —hidden — from hackers who could access your computer. Firewalls let you regulate who you’re talking to and who gets to talk back, so that only Internet conversations you know about can exist. My firewall of choice? ZoneAlarm, which can be found at http://Zonealarm.com. It is another free solution (be sure to find the free one, and not the trial). Similar to AVG, they make money by selling products that protect computers from a variety of harms, but their firewall is free. Zonealarm also is not as intuitive as Spybot, and it’ll be an annoyance at first, until it learns who you are and how you use your computer to more accurately keep you safe. Remember to turn off your Windows firewall if ZoneAlarm doesn’t do it for you. You might not need a firewall at all, depending on where/how you use your computer. In your office? Probably not. At home? Maybe, depending on if you have a router and how complex that router is. If have only one home computer that is hooked directly to the modem, you definitely need a firewall. Not sure when? Keep it on, it won’t slow operation too much and it’s better to be safe than sorry. I’d also recommend a firewall if you use wireless Internet that is not secure or not always from someone you know.
I’d recommend updating and running AVG and Spybot once a month. ZoneAlarm will run silently in the background all the time and won’t require updates too often.
That’s it for me. These free solutions are a great start to keeping you, your information and your computer safe. If you need help with this information or anything else computer-related, have an idea for a tech article, have comments on this article, or just want to buy me lunch (just kidding!), feel free to contact Colorado Bar Association IT Department, (303) 860-1115.