BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 2009

THE FINAL EPISODE

  

 

BOOT CAMP 578 (27/05/09) – Privacy and Paranoia, part 4

 

When you think about it your computer probably knows more about you than anyone else. You would be amazed how it all adds up. There could be an insight into your medical history from that time you tried to find out more about a nasty looking rash or prescription medicine. There may be emails that reveal your political affiliations, a web history that shows which newspapers and magazines you read, online banking details, utility bills, information about your home, car, telephone, travel plans even photographs that could be used to forge identity cards and passports. The list goes on and the point is if it fell into the wrong hands, there’s no telling what it would be used for.

 

As we have seen in this short series there is a lot you can do to protect your computer from direct attack, by restricting access to it, encrypting sensitive files and installing a good two-way firewall but this week we’re looking at the silent threat posed by malicious software or malware.

 

This is a broad term covering computer programs that sneak into your PC and stealthily change settings or rummage through your files, looking for personal or private information. You may think you are protected if you have an anti-virus program and firewall on your computer but you would be wrong.

 

Viruses are generally destructive or disruptive and you know fairly quickly that your PC is infected. They spread by replication, sending copies of themselves on emails and storage media or hide inside program downloads. Malware programs are more discrete; they sneak in through the backdoor, hiding out on infected websites, waiting for complacent or off-guard passing visitors.

 

The sad fact is the vast majority of malware gets onto computers by invitation. It’s easily done, a pop-up box appears on your screen and without thinking you click on it to get rid of it and the damage is done. You might think that you are safe because you have a good two-way firewall that stops programs on your PC from hijacking your Internet connection but malware writers have that one covered; some of them can disable firewall and antivirus programs.

 

Maybe you think you’re too smart to get caught and you never visit dodgy websites or click on pop-ups, but I am sorry to have to tell you that they can still get through. There’s a particularly devious branch of the malware family called Rootkits. These are able to fool security software, Windows and you into thinking that they are legitimate and therefore safe to run. In some cases no action on your part is required, all you have to do is visit an infected website, and several very respectable sites have unwittingly hosted rootkit infections. 

 

It’s all starting to sound a bit scary but as I said in part one, you can reduce the risk to almost zero by taking a few simple precautions and the first and arguably the most effective one is to stop using Internet Explorer.

 

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with IE, it does a reasonable job but the problem is it is installed on every Windows PC, which makes it a massive target for the people who create malware. Tens of thousands of them, all around the world devote an enormous amount of time and effort into hacking into it and creating or exploiting vulnerabilities. Microsoft receive a lot of criticism for the security loopholes in IE, and some of them should have been avoided but in its defence no piece of software can resist that sort of relentless and determined attack.

 

When switching browsers avoid ones that are based on the IE ‘engine’, which will have the same weaknesses. Most people opt for Mozilla Firefox (http://tinyurl.com/6a37pp), also worth considering is Google Chrome (http://tinyurl.com/c53zvf), and Apple Safari (http://tinyurl.com/6vlk). They are all free and, for the moment at least a lot less likely to pick up something nasty when browsing the web. They are certainly not immune, however, and there are a few more things you need to do, or rather not do when visiting web sites.

 

Never click on pop-ups, most browsers can be configured to suppress them but occasionally one gets through. If it happens just close the browser and make a note not to go back to that site again. At least once a week check your PC with a malware cleaner. Better yet, run two or three of them as no one cleaner can cover all of the possible threats. There’s no need to buy commercial software; AdAware, A-Squared, Malwarebytes, Rogue Remover, SuperAntiSpyware Free and Spybot are all free and do a very good job. Links to all of them can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/2woy5u, but whatever cleaner you use be very careful about what you download -- see this week’s Top Tip.

 

You should also download and install Microsoft Defender (http://tinyurl.com/5q36co. This is specifically designed to protect Windows and Internet Explorer and you need it even if you switch browsers, as there are a number of websites that only function properly with IE.

 

If you share your PC and a malware program breaches your defences you can limit the damage and stop it affecting others by making sure that everyone who uses it has their own limited User Account (see Boot Camp 526 - 530 at http://tinyurl.com/qghddb) and that includes you, as the Adminstrator.

 

Next Week – Privacy, part 5  Part 1 2 3 5

 

JARGON FILTER

 

LIMITED USER ACCOUNT

User Account with no access to system files or authority to change settings and install software

 

POP-UP

Irritating advertisements that suddenly appear on your screen whilst browsing web pages; clicking on a popup may also download malware onto your computer 

 

ROOTKIT

A set of tools, used by virus writers, to create a stealthy container or wrapper for concealing malicious software

 

 

TOP TIP

The malware threat is bad enough but it is compounded by countless rogue anti-malware cleaner programs. Many of them generate false positive to scare you into buying the product, some will even deliberately spike your PC with malware and then demand what amounts to a ransom for a cleaner product to remove the infection. SypwareWarrior (http://tinyurl.com/yslol) has a list of good and bad products, though it doesn’t seem to have been updated recently but the site does have links to a number of other sites that are carrying on the good work.

 

Don't forget, there's a full archive of previous Boot Camp Top Tips at www.pctoptips.co.uk/

 

---end---

© R. Maybury 2009, 0505

 

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