BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 2002

  

 

BOOT CAMP 244 (24/09/02)

 

Protecting your PC, part 2

 

There’s a lot you can do to protect your PC from external and unpredictable threats, such as surges in the mains electricity supply and lightning strikes – see last week’s Boot Camp -- but what can you do to shield it from attack -- deliberate and accidental -- by human assailants?

 

Break-ins and theft of computer equipment is a major problem costing UK firms hundreds of millions of pounds a year. PCs kept on commercial premises that are often unoccupied at night or at weekends are particularly vulnerable. In truth your PC is at risk wherever it is kept so it is wise to take some basic anti-theft measures, even in the home. At the very least you should mark all of your equipment with your postcode, either indelibly in a concealed location or by using a ultra-violet marker pen. It won’t stop anything from being stolen but it might make it easier to identify your property if it is later recovered.

 

Various products are available, mostly mechanical in nature, designed to prevent the system unit and expensive peripherals being removed from the premises. These include brackets and restraints that fix the case to a desk, office furniture or the floor and security cupboards and ‘cages’. There are also devices and attachments for locking the disc drives and securing the case or side panels. It’s worth remembering that the latest processor chips and memory boards are actually worth considerably more than their weight in gold!

 

Various electronic cards and modules are also available that fit inside the case, these include tags and trackers, trembler alarms that sound if the computer is moved and sensors that react if the PC is disconnected from the mains supply. Needless to say leaving a laptop lying around and in view is just asking for trouble – lock it up or loose it!

 

Most computer dealers stock a range of security products suitable for single desktop machines in a domestic or SoHo environment; if you are responsible for a significant amount of computer hardware or a network it’s wise to seek expert advice.

 

If your PC is readily accessible to others and it contains sensitive information, or you simply do not want anyone messing around or using it without your permission then the very first thing you should do is protect the files and data it contains with a PIN or password lock of some sort.

 

The security features in Windows 9x (95, 98, ME & SE) are notoriously weak and really only designed to identify users so don’t even think of using them, unless you only need to protect your PC against 5-year olds (and even that’s debatable, given the computer savvy of many kids these days…). Windows XP is a lot better (see http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/security/ ) but it’s worth knowing that once a PC has booted up, even if it’s only to a password request dialogue box, the data it contains can be vulnerable to determined attack.

 

Most PCs and laptops have a good first-level security feature built-in to their BIOS software. This is the small program that runs immediately after switch-on, testing and configuring the computer hardware prior to loading Windows. When the BIOS password facility is enabled the boot process will not start until the correct PIN is entered.

 

Accessing the BIOS program to set up the password facility involves pressing a key, or sequence of keys immediately after the computer is switched on, you should consult your manual for details. The BIOS program usually displays a simple menu with a security or password option. Once set a PIN entry dialogue box will appear on the screen as soon as the PC is switched on. The BIOS password facility is very powerful so make sure you remember it, or keep a note of it in a safe place.

 

If you are not comfortable about making changes to your PC’s BIOS – and it’s not something novices should try -- and you only require low-level protection against those pesky five year olds, or for when your PC is unattended then the simplest option is to password protect a screensaver. To switch this facility on right-click on an empty area of the desktop and select Properties, (or double-click the Display icon in Control Panel) and select the Screensaver tab; you’ll find the password option under the screensaver name box. 

 

Varying degrees of protection can be provided by third-part software utilities, which either prevent Windows from loading or deny access to files and folders and programs without an appropriate password or PIN. There are plenty to choose from, including lots of commercial applications but if you are still evaluating your security needs you might want to have a look at some of the freeware titles available (see below), or search for shareware programs with Google (www.google.com), using keywords such as ‘Windows Security’ and ‘Password Protection’. 

 

Protector Win: http://www.home.acenet.net.au/grahampe/

WinSafe: http://www.ruzzy.co.uk/winsafe.html

Locker: http://www.geocities.com/simpleapps/

Black Screen: http://www.rjlsoftware.com/software/security/black/

 

Next week – Alternative Internet and email programs

 

JARGON FILTER

 

BIOS

Basic Input Output System, a program stored in a microchip memory on the PC motherboard that checks and configures the hardware, memory and disc drives, before the operating system is loaded

 

SOHO

Small Office, Home Office, also a category of PC peripherals and office equipment designed for light to medium workloads

 

TAGS AND TRACKERS

Family of anti-theft products, ranging in complexity from passive security ‘tags’ – similar to those used to protect goods in shops – to active location beacons, using cellular phone technology and automatic Internet reporting systems that are enabled as soon as the stolen PC is connected to a telephone line

 

 

TOP TIP

This tip is an extension of one we published last week, to quickly open a blank email message window, without launching Outlook Express. To recap, simply right-click on any desktop icon, select Send To > Mail Recipient and delete the entries in the Subject and Attach boxes and the message area and it’s ready to go. To make it even more accessible go to Save As on your newly created blank message window’s File menu, call it Blank, or something similar and Save it on the Desktop. Now you can drag and drop the little envelope icon onto the Quick Start toolbar (next to the Start button) and a blank message window is never more than a single mouse click away.

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