Privacy, Security & Environment

 

 

Fishy Business

As you may have heard laptop manufacturer Lenovo has been in trouble recently for selling machines with a malware program called Superfish installed. It’s a nasty piece of work that inserts ads into Google searches, which is bad enough, but it also creates dodgy SSL certificates that could allow hackers to break into a secure connection. There are also reports of it using iffy JavaScripts so all in all it is definitely not something you would want on your machine. Apparently this happened between September and December of last year and could have affected up to 16 million machines. Lenovo reacted reasonably quickly with information on how to remove the infection manually, but now it has released a free tool that does the job automatically. Obviously Lenovo laptop owners should use it without delay, but it’s worth everyone checking that their machines as Superfish can turn up almost anywhere.

02/03/15

 

Cross Platform ‘Cryptor

Here’s a puzzle, let’s say that you want to copy a file from your PC to your smartphone or tablet -- or vice-versa -- so it is available to open or edit and at the same time keep it safe from the nosey parkers. The obvious solution is to encrypt it, but there’s a problem. There are plenty of excellent programs and apps that can encrypt files in Windows, iOS or Android, but very few that work on all three platforms. Here’s one, it’s called SES or Secret Space Encryptor, it’s a true cross-platform system and it uses, amongst other things, 256-bit AES encryption, which to all intents and purposes is uncrackable, and both the Windows utility and Android and iOS apps are all free. It is incredibly easy to use too, in Windows just open the SES program, set your password and drag and drop the file you want to scramble into the window.  The Android apps is just as easy to use, simply select he file you want to encrypt or decrypt, enter your password and it is done. The Android app can also be used to encrypt folders and even entire drives, which will keep it safe from all but the well resourced government spooks, and even they could have problems getting at your data as recent tests on 256-AES suggest that a brute force attack with a supercomputer could take around 1 billion years to crack the code…

02/02/15

 

Free 3-Day Spot Remover

Here’s a chance to drop off the grid for three days, access sites that you would normally be banned from due to your location and protect your PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone from nasties, and it is completely free. It is called Spotflux Free, it’s a virtual private network (VPN). The free (ad-supported) three day trial is fully featured and provides fast speeds with no bandwidth limitations. If you like what you find -- and you probably will -- you can sign up for a unlimited service for just $5.99 a year, for an Android or iOS smartphone or tablet, or $29.95 for up to 5 devices running Windows, Mac OS, iOS and Android. It only takes a couple of minutes to install and after that it sits quietly in the background. Your real IP address will be masked and it will appear to nosey parkers that you are in another country (east or west coast US or Germany on the free version). Data that you send and receive over the web is encrypted, dangerous websites are automatically blocked and if you upgrade you’ll also get ad and tracking cookie blocking, malware protection and unlimited high speed web access. There are no hidden catches or requirements (you can skip the registration process) and if you don’t get on with it simply delete it and you will be back in the headlights. After the trial it continues to work, but only in web encryption mode.

03/01/15

 

Kiss Goodbye To Nosey Parkers

As we all know virtually everything you do on the Internet can now be monitored and the history of your web browsings are almost certainly being logged by your ISP so they can be examined by official (and quite possibly unofficial) snoopers, as well. Of course, most of us have nothing to hide, but at the same time no-one wants to be spied upon, but there are ways to mask your identity and remain secure online. On a more practical level, there may be times, when you are out and about, that you want to access a website and watch a TV program, or stream a video, but your PC or tablet won’t let you as the site you are trying to connect with uses your IP address and geolocation to find out where you are, and restrict access if you are not in the right country. The solution is to use a Virtual Private Network or VPN service, and there are plenty of good ones to choose from, but most of them you have to pay for. There are also lots of free ones as well, but inevitably there are often strings attached; you might have to watch ads, it can get busy, the bandwidth is limited, it is painfully slow, or there are security issues. Well, so far SecurityKISS Tunnel (Keep it Smart & Simple) is free, fast and accessible, and very easy to use, but as you would expect there are usage limits. Security is always a concern, but there have been no negative reports, even so, it is not a good idea to use it to carry out financial transactions using it, but that is good advice when away from home and connected to a publicly available wireless network. Once installed it’s ready to go and all you need to do is select a server in the country you want any geotracking system to think that you are in and click the Connect button. It’s that easy. The download is clean – no nasty toolbars or unwanted extras to watch out for Android, iOS, Mac and Linux versions also available), but you do need to be aware of the daily limit of 300Mb in the free version. That’s enough for emails and a spot of web browsing and the server locations are limited to the UK, USA, France and Germany, but it’s a good way to get a taste of what it can do. If you like what you see and want to upgrade prices for a 20Gb/month service starts at €2.99 a month or €23.90 a year, and if you want to go unlimited that will set you back €9.99 a month or €89.90 a year, with various discounts in between for 3 and 6 month packages.

15/12/14 

 

Bleachy Blitzer

When it comes to cleaning PCs of detritus (and the stuff that Windows secretly stores) CCLeaner is a very hard act to follow but here’s a new Open Source contender, called BleachBit that looks more than capable of taking care of routine cleanups as well as freeing up wasted or unused disc space and doing a thorough shredding job on files that you want to make unrecoverable. It knows exactly where to look for rubbish within your system and it’s also familiar with the data hidey holes used by more than 1000 applications> There’s a built-in safety net too and you get to preview everything it considers a waste of space, before it gets zapped. Even if you think that have nothing to hide it is still running BleachBit, and if nothing else it could claw back some useful disk space, and get rid of files that could be slowing down your PC. There’s also a version for Linux, by the way, though it tends to be less wasteful of space but it’s still worth using.

08/12/14  

 

CC Even Cleaner

CCLeaner, one of the most powerful cleaning tools for removing junk files and unwanted Registry entries from Windows just got even better with a new free upgrade tool called CCEnhancer. You will need CCLeaner on your PC, then all you have to do is download and run CCEnhancer. It’s a portable application so it doesn’t need installing; simply click the Download Latest button and it automatically adds cleaning instructions and definitions for more than 1000 programs. It can also be set to automatically update every time it runs. You’ll find all of the new options on CCLeaner’s Windows tab and straight out of the box some of the most common options are already checked, but you may want to take a few minutes ticking the programs that you want to cleanse. The only downside is that the program takes a moment or two longer to load, and the scan is a little slower but that is only to be expected. If you are already using CCLeaner then this is definitely worth investigating

01/12/14

 

Poodle Proofing

Here’s a weird new security threat for you to worry about. It’s called Padding Oracle On Downgraded Legacy Encryption, or Poodle, for short. Basically it’s a recently discovered vulnerability in version 3.0 of the Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption used to protect information sent between websites, servers and computer users and it is responsible for the padlock icon which appears when you are exchanging details with a secure website. It is important to note that it only affects SSLv3, and it’s an old standard that has been steadily replaced by more secure systems, like TLS (Transport Layer Security), so the risk is relatively small, but it exists and it could be used by hackers to infect, take control of your browser and steal data, so it’s a good idea to take precautions. Fortunately it’s easy to disable SSL 3.0 in Internet Explorer, just go to Internet Options on the Tools (gearwheel) icon, select the Advanced tab, scroll down the Settings list and in the Security section, uncheck Use SSL 3.0 and click OK. It’s a little more involved in Firefox and you have to delve into the configuration settings (type about:config in the address bar and click through the warnings. Scroll down or search for ‘security.tls.version.min’, double click on it and change the value to 1, which forces it to only use the safer SSL 1.0. Mozilla say that this will be set by default on all upcoming upgrades and new versions. Google Chrome is even more complicated but there’s a simple to follow guide for all versions (and instructions for other browsers) on the zmap site.

03/11/14

 

Lock Stock And USB Drive

Here’s a neat little freeware utility for locking your PC while you are way from your desk for a short while, and it couldn’t be simpler to use. All you have to do is whip out your USB drive ‘key’ and the computer goes into lockdown mode. When you return just pop the drive back in and it’s ready to use again. It’s called Winlockr and it works with any USB flash drive, or card reader, and the only limitation that we can see is that it doesn’t work properly on Windows 8. It only takes a minute to configure, and in case you’re worried, there’s a backdoor, just in case you loose your key. Incidentally, a similar, but obscure facility, called Syskey (type that into a search box), has been built into Windows since the mid 1990s but in 1999 it was show to be vulnerable and although it was later patched and beefed up it is still a bit of a palaver to set up, and not that intuitive to use.

08/09/14 

 

Ransomware Relief?

Although the criminal organisation behind the recent spate of Cryptolocker infections has been taken down a lot of people have been left with effectively useless systems and inaccessible files. Computers infected by Cryptolocker had all of their user files encrypted, and they would only be unlocked if the victim paid a ransom, usually around $300, and if they didn’t pay within 72 hours the decryption key needed to unlock the files would be destroyed. A lot of people chose not to pay and they have been left with ruined inaccessible systems, but now there is some hope. A free web-based service from Fire Eye and Fox IT is providing a free decryption keys to those who have been caught by this scam. All you have to do is upload an encrypted file to the site and they will extract the key, once you have the key simply download the recovery program and the rest of the files can be unlocked. As far as we can see there are no strings or hidden costs and the company promises that user’s files and identities will remain private, and secure.

10/08/14

 

New Router Risk

If your router is made by Linksys or TPlink and you are being pestered by pop-ups to update Internet Explorer or your Flash player software, web searches are mysteriously re-directed, or you cannot access Google then there is a very good chance it’s the work of a new threat called the Moon virus, or one of its variants. What makes this one different, and dangerous is that it’s the router that is infected and the security software on your computer is effectively useless against it. This is all due to a hidden feature on many routers that allows them to be remotely controlled by ISPs. Your computer will almost certainly pick up a nasty does of malware if you click on the pop-up and download the update, so what can you do about it? At the moment router manufacturers – and others may well be involved – are keeping pretty quiet but it is clear that this type of vulnerability requires a firmware update. If it happens to you then the quick and simple solution is to reset the router to its factory defaults – the instructions will be in the manual – but make sure that have a record of the log-on settings, and you will need to reset your wireless passcode, so don’t try this at home useless you know what you are doing. Stopping it happening again is a little harder as the Moon virus is flooding the web, and it can take over your router, even if the computer is switched off. If you know your way around your router’s setup menu there are some suggestions on the Linksys website, TPLink users are advised to visit the manufacturer’s website and check to see if there’s updated firmware available for their model.

07/07/14

 

Zero Day Zapper

You might think your computer is fully protected but there are countless threats that the traditional anti-virus applications either cannot detect, or will only react to after the damage has been done. Maybe not for much longer; you will be pleased to know that the people behind one of the most effective malware cleaners, Malwarebytes, is now on the case with a new tool to boost your defences; it’s called Anti-Exploit, and the basic version is free. It targets so-called zero-day threats, which attack browsers, media players, Java, documents and so on, carrying nasties like Trojans and Ransomware. Unlike conventional anti-virus software Anti-Exploit doesn’t rely on updated signature files and blacklists to identify new infections. This approach often doesn’t work on these increasingly sophisticated infections; instead it proactively monitors the operating system, looking for typical exploit behaviour, blocking malicious codes before they can get to work. The free version protects browsers, add-ons and Java; the upgrade, which costs £19.95 also covers PDF readers, includes shields for Word, Excel and Powerpoint, popular media players and more advanced configuration options. 

30/06/14

 

A Picture Hides A Thousand Words

As we all know they are watching use, but there are ways to stop them seeing your most secret or private messages, but simple encryption is not the answer. Encrypted messages and files in emails can attract attention and invite further investigation, and given time and resources even the most powerful encryption systems can be cracked. So, the trick is to avoid attention in the first place, using an ancient technique called steganography. It dates back to ancient Greece, 499 BC and an exiled tyrant called Histiaeus who needed to send a secret message about a revolt he was planning to his nephew Aristagoras. He shaved the head of a slave, tattooed the message on his head, waited for his hair to grow back then sent the slave to Aristagoras, with instructions to give him a haircut… 

 

Picsel Security is a modern equivalent. It’s a small freeware application that can invisibly embed large text files in any jpg, bmp, png or wmf image file. The picture looks no different, and even if someone gets suspicious, the embedded data is almost impossible to get at without the decryption key. Instead of a password, though, which could be cracked, the key is the original image, and because of its size complexity it makes the hidden file virtually impossible to decrypt. You may have spotted a flaw in this method but if you are going to use it to send secret email messages when you are out and about just make sure that you provide the recipient with a copy of the original image before you set off.

09/06/14

 

A-Mazing Security

Here’s a neat little freeware utility that protects your PC when you are away from your desk, or are in the habit of leaving your computer unattended. It’s called Eusing Maze Lock and it works just like the pattern swipe locks on tablet PCs, indeed there’s no reason why you can’t use it on a Windows 8 touch-screen computer, otherwise it is perfectly happy with a mouse, and it runs on all versions of Windows from XP onwards. The idea is after a period of inactivity, or by pressing a custom hotkey, your PC locks into a safe screen and to unlock it you have to draw your memorised pattern by joining the dots, using your mouse or a finger. You get a few goes, in case you are a bit forgetful but get it wrong too many times and a siren sounds and the PC automatically locks up solid after 30 seconds. You can make the pattern as simple or complicated as you like, on a 3 x 3, 4 x 4 or 5 x 5 grid and just in case you forget your pattern, there is a backup.  There are lots of custom options for screens and background, it supports multiple monitors and it is impervious to hacking by keyloggers. Yes, Windows has its own inbuilt locking system, but this one is a whole lot better, and much noisier!

26/05/14

 

Heartbleed Hero

A great deal of nonsense and far too many scare stores have been written about the Heartbleed security flaw in the past week or so, but I am not about to add to the confusion. There clearly was an issue and if it has you worried here’s a very simple way to make sure that the web sites you visit are now free of this particular bug, though only if you are using the Chrome and Firefox browsers; IE users will have to stay worried. Two browser add-ons and an extension, called ChromeBleedFoxBleed and HeartBleed-Ext , respectively, have been created by Filippo Valsorda. When you open the website the add-on carries out a check and if it is affected by the bug it tells you straight away, by displaying a red bleeding heart icon. Heartbleed–Ext puts a easy to spot coloured heart logo on the Firefox toolbar. They are all easy to use and should help calm a few nerves, though there is always the possibility of a false positive, so there’s another check you can do. Filippo has created a Heartbleed Test website, simply copy and paste the address of the website you want to verify and it tells you if there’s a problem.

21/04/14

 

Watchful Wizard

With so many viruses, malware and web lurgies doing the rounds it’s a scary time for the paranoid. Thankfully most of us have got the message and installed effective security software and know not to take chances with unsolicited email attachments, download pirated media or software and avoid dodgy websites, but the threat, however small, still remains that one day we’ll pick up something nasty. It’s even more of a concern for users of Windows XP, now that Microsoft has stopped issuing security updates, and whilst there is still a good selection of free and paid for security software for XP, many owners feel they’ve been left high and dry, so what if there was a way to immunise your computer, Windows XP and later against such misfortunes? Well, maybe there is, and it’s a freeware utility called Toolwiz Time Freeze. Basically it stops anything from making changes to your computer by putting all of its critical system files in a ‘Sandbox’. This is a protected storage area, and should the worst happen and critical files are interfered with, the changes will be automatically undone the next time the PC is booted. Should changes be needed or required you can decide to allow them from an Exclusions list. Simply put, nothing bad can happen to your PC when Timefreeze is running, and if you want to live dangerously, you can turn it off with just one click.

14/04/14

 

Keep It Private

Your PC probably knows more about you than you do yourself, and it never forgets, so if you want to mind your own business you need to do something about the potential gossip hiding in your computer. Here’s one way to keep it personal, it’s a freeware utility called Private Eraser, and it will take care of all of those files you thought that you had deleted, traces of the websites you have visited, odds and ends left in the recycle bin, info stored by browser plugins, History and DNS caches, the clipboard, recent documents folder, log files, memory dumps error reports and it also lets you keep a close watch on programs that launch automatically with Windows. The built-in file shredder will make sure that deleted files are virtually unrecoverable using military-grade techniques that overwrite them with random data, up to 35 times. It will even need to delete the hidden and protected Index.dat files at startup, which detail every website you’ve ever visited from day one, so if you take your privacy seriously it’s well worth a look, 

31/03/14

 

Hidden Talent

Come on admit it, there are things on your computer that you would rather no-one else sees. Of course it’s all perfectly innocent, private or personal letters, passwords that you can’t possibly remember and so on, so what can you do to protect them? Well, encryption is one solution, though anyone rooting through your files coming across an encrypted folder will know straight away that there’s something interesting inside and be tempted to crack it open to have a look. A more subtle approach is to make your private folders invisible, that won’t show up, even on a really thorough search, and only you can make it reappear, but only if you know the password. All you need is a little freeware utility called My Lockbox , and there are no limits on the size of the files it can hide, the program can’t be tampered with or installed without knowing the password, and there’s a trusted process feature that allows the hidden folder and its contents to be safely backed up. The Free version will only hide one folder but it can contain an unlimited number of sub folders, and as usual, pay attention during the install – use the Custom option – and uncheck any extras and add-ons that you do not want.

24/03/14

 

Crypto Cracker

The war against malware and browser hijacks is never ending and we can now add Ransomware to the list, where your files are encrypted, and will only be unlocked upon payment of a ransom fee. There is a lot you can do to protect yourself, simply by being careful, not clicking boxes willy-nilly, not visiting dodgy websites, downloading pirate material, not opening unexpected attachments, keeping your security software up to date and so on, you know the score, but here’s another weapon in the fight, called HitmanPro. It’s job is simple, think of it as a burglar alarm, and it will warn you as soon as there is any suspicious activity that could be a threat to your system. It runs silently in the background, uses few resources, and should remain relatively future proof, even if the hackers come up with new tricks. This is a Beta software, so the usual warnings apply, but we’ve tried it on XP, W7 and W8, so far without any problems, but as always, you try it at your own risk.

10/02/14

 

Checky This Out

Nowadays, when we suggest a piece of freeware it often comes with a warning, that you should pay close attention during the installation process, to avoid loading any other programs that you don’t want, that might be installed automatically at the same time. These include relatively innocuous offers for trial versions of programs, to less desirable things, like adware and browser toolbars that take over your home page and can be real swines to get rid of. In extreme cases this also includes malware and viruses. In many cases the check boxes for these extras are pre-ticked, for your convenience, of course, so you need to keep your wits about you. Here’s a useful looking little freeware program, called Unchecky, that helps to spot those very kind but mostly unwanted offers for you. It runs in the background, watching out for new installations and if it spots a ticked checkbox or unexpected installation it warns you. It should catch most of those sneaky add-ons but it’s not infallible so you should still be on the alert. One last point, it installed okay on our W7 and W8 PCs but have trouble with XP, even though it is listed as compatible. No harm was done, but each time it was installed the machine rebooted, so if you are going to try it on XP make sure you’ve saved your data and closed any running programs first.

09/12/13

 

Pass Friend

We’ve looked at a fair few password managers over the years, and here’s another, but this one is rather good, and of course it is free. It is LastPass, and it has been around for a while, building up a good reputation for being very secure, and easy to use. If you are unfamiliar with password managers then basically all you need to know is that instead of having to remember lots of different passwords, you only need one that protects your LastPass vault, which contains all of the passwords for all of the websites and services that you use. The real benefit is that you can use long and secure and not worry about memorising them, or heaven forefend, write them down, and it can be set to fill in forms automatically. Everything is protected by high-grade encryption and because it is a cloud service, you can access your vault at any time, online on any web browser, on any device, using just your master password

02/12/13

 

Zer0 Zapper

Unless you have been living in a cave for the last 25 years you will know that the Delete key on your computer does nothing of the sort. Files on computers are never normally deleted outright, the data remains on the hard drive. All that really happens is the reference to it is removed from the storage device’s directory or index and the space it occupies is marked as free. Eventually it the data may be overwritten, but that could be tomorrow, next week or next year, there is no way of telling. Just make things really scary, it is technically possible to retrieve data that has been overwritten several times. So what to you do when you want to make a file disappear forever, leaving no trace behind? Well, you could try this little freeware program, called Zer0.  It claims to make deleted files unrecoverable, and whilst they’re not saying it cannot be done, they make the point that no user has ever reported begin able to retrieve data deleted by Zer0 efficiently, which we presume to mean that to do so is going to take more time and resources than the average hacker or nosey parker has available to them. The program is free, but keep your wits about you during the install and watch for those tick boxes if you don’t want to contribute to market research programs or install Toolbars, which, sad to say, is becoming increasingly common these days, and the price you have to pay for ‘free’ software

18/11/13

 

Tales About The Crypt

It's a few days late for Halloween, but here’s a horror story you shouldn’t ignore. It’s about a newish malware, or rather Ransomware infection that started to appear in September, and now seems to be getting a firm foothold on vulnerable PCs around the world. It’s called CryptoLocker and once activated it systematically scrambles all of the user’s data files, using industrial strength encryption. Once it has finished it displays a message saying that you have 96 hours to stump up between £100 and £300 (or euros), after which the decryption key will be destroyed, along with any realistic chance of getting your files back. So far all attempts to find the miscreants or any way of decrypting the files, short of using one of the NSA’s supercomputer, have failed. To stop this happening to you follow the basic rules of malware avoidance, i.e. do not open unexpected attachments, especially pdfs, even if they come from people or organisations that you have dealings with. Don’t visit dodgy websites and don’t download pirated software or media. Security software has yet to catch up with this menace, it will, but at the moment the best you can hope or is a warning that your PC has been infected, at which point it’s probably too late and all you can do is quickly unplug the LAN cable or disconnect Wi-FI and you may be lucky and stop it spreading to other PCs on your network. There’s one other thing you can do, that stops CryptoLocker activating, but it involves editing the Windows Policy Editor. It’s not difficult but a bit tricky for novices. Fortunately there is a free tool that does it for you, called CryptoPrevent, and you’ll find a link to the download on the Foolish IT website.

04/11/13  

 

No Fee Checkup

Virus and security zapmeisters McAfee have come up with another free tool to give your PC a quick once over, checking the operating system for problems, testing your network connections, investigating your hardware and security systems. It’s called TechCheck and after a short download, it gets straight to work. At the end of the scan it presents you with a list of possible problems, and even offers to fix some of them for you. It’s all fairly lightweight and doesn’t do anything especially new or clever, and in truth it’s actually in invitation for you to sign up for McAfee’s online help service. There’s no obligation to take up this kind offer, though, and it if you have been letting your PC maintenance regime slide a bit lately, it could give you a useful heads-up something nasty about to happen, that you may have missed. This is good news for nervous novices and the forgetful and it doesn’t do anything heavy-handed that might compromise your system, or make a bad situation even worse, and if you really don’t like tinkering with your PC, there’s the option to let someone else to do it for you, for a fee, of course.

07/10/13

 

Snooper Duper

It should have come as no surprise to learn that everything that you do on the Internet is or can be monitored and recorded by Government agencies, and if you didn’t know, where have you been these last few months? Anyway, if you’ve nothing to hide what’s the problem? Well, even if you are as innocent as the driven snow it’s still unsettling to think that you are being watched, your privacy is potentially being invaded, and in many Western countries, and that includes the UK, access to the web is subject to varying degrees of censorship; so what can you do about it? If surfing anonymously is your main concern then have a look at UltraSurf. It’s a privacy tool that originated in China where Internet user’s security and freedom is a major issue. UltraSurf integrates with Internet Explorer, hiding your IP address and deleting cookies, history and other traces of your web activities. Additionally data sent and received whilst it is working is heavily encrypted and it enables users to bypass censorship and banned sites. Clearly tools like this can be used for good or ill, but if you believe that you are entitled to privacy and security then this should make the nosey parkers and snoopers lives a bit more difficult.

30/09/13

 

YACuum Cleaner

One day somebody really will come up with a program that makes Windows perform faster and more efficiently, remove all of the rubbish and stop infections in their track. That day has yet to arrive, but in the meantime here’s a freeware utility that does a very fair job of PC optimising, and who knows, it may even make it run a little bit faster. It’s called YAC Virus Removal, which is a rather odd name for a program that doesn’t really do viruses, as such. What it does do is clear out browser caches, deletes history and empties the Recycle Bin. It checks, protects and offers to remove potentially malicious browser plug-ins. Monitors and removes unwanted or unnecessary system processes, disables or delays software that you do not want or need to start with Windows and gives the Registry the once-over to remove redundant entries. There’s nothing here you can’t do manually for yourself but this automates the process, which is good and bad. There is the risk of it lopping off something that you might need, so read the reports and if you are unsure about anything, leave well alone. It certainly worked for us, though and managed to reduce boot-up time on a very tired XP laptop by a good 30 seconds, and found remnants of a couple of old toolbars that we thought we’ve eradicated long ago.

16/09/13 

 

Cleaner Sweep

Over the years we have looked at dozens of malware cleaners and one way or another they have all done a pretty fair job – we don’t talk about the rubbish ones. But every so often one comes along that goes beyond the call of duty. One such is a French open source utility called AdwCleaner, and in the last few weeks I have been really impressed with the number of malware infections and unwanted browser toolbars it has managed to eradicate. These include current and widespread luminaries like Delta Search and Snap.do. AdwCleaner gets down and dirty with these often difficult to remove nasties, rooting out sneaky Registry entries that other cleaners often overlook and which can result in bits of the toolbar remaining behind, and raising the possibility of a subsequent re-infection. It is free, very easy to use and doesn’t require installation, and well worth running, just to see what’s hiding away inside your PC.

01/09/13

 

Tricksy Fixer

Over the years we’ve looked at more free malware and spyware removal tools than you can shake a stick at. One way or another they all did a reasonable job, but the problems is they’re forever chasing multiple fast-moving targets, as the creators of these things devise new strategies and exploit newly discovered loopholes. The result is that what was once provided useful protection may now be hopelessly out of date. So here’s another new one, called FreeFixer, and whilst it too may eventually suffer the same fate, at the moment it is doing a pretty good job of rooting out adware, spyware, trojans, viruses and worms. It searches a number of commonly used file locations and unlike many other scanners it doesn’t discriminate according to a set of rules. It shows up everything that set to launch with Windows, good and bad, so it’s up to you to decide which ones to zap, which it does after a reboot. This allows it to get at the really deeply embedded nasties. In theory it should find even the sneakiest bit of malware, but be warned, it produces a lot of information, it’s not for absolute novices and used carelessly you could end up deleting a system file or something that you want to keep. There is good-online help but If that’s a concern you can always upgrade to the paid-for version ($9.95), which has a backup facility.

05/08/13

 

Running Repairs

If there’s something nasty on your PC, or a program or service that saps resources and slows it down then the chances are it is launched during boot up.  If you know your way around Windows and have a decent anti malware scanner you can keep a running check on these processes, but it’s hard work so here’s a easier way. It’s called Runscanner and it is a freeware tool that analyses critical areas of your system, where hijack threats lurk and bottlenecks occur, using a vast database library. You can run it in Beginner Mode for a fully automated summary that will appear in a browser window, or Advanced mode, where you get to choose what, if any, changes to make. It’s fast, very easy to use, and it’s totally portable, so no installation is required.

22/07/13

 

Banish The Bots

It is clear hat the malware menace isn’t going to go away anytime soon so we all need to be on our guard against web borne infections. Hopefully most of us are protected by effective security software and carry out regular scans using dedicated malware scanners but even that many not be enough to avoid catching something nasty, so here’s a new approach, for users of Windows 7 and above. It’s called Bot Revolt, and rather than bolting the stable door – detecting an infection after it has landed on your PC -- it proactively scans your system every .002 seconds, monitoring any unusual or suspicious activity, and checking the origins of IP address connecting to your machine against a database of more than a million blacklisted threats, compiled by the web’s leading security companies. It does this without affecting performance and you can keep an eye on what’s it doing, in real time, for added peace of mind, and you will be surprised at how busy your PC is behind the scenes. The only limitation on the free trial version is that the list isn’t constantly updated – more than 3000 IPs are added every day – so its effectiveness diminishes with time, but it’s still worth road testing, and if you want to go for the paid option it will set you back $4.95 a month.

24/06/13

 

Key to Safer Surfing

As you may know one of the most dangerous types of spyware is keyloggers. These are small programs that gets onto your PC, usually through an infected website or email attachments, and silently monitors everything you type on your keyboard. Basically they’re looking for passwords and PINs, which are sent back to mothership so they can rifle your bank account and hijack emails, social media accounts and so on. Keyloggers can be difficult to detect but here’s a simple little program that does just that, nothing else, so if it finds anything you’ll have to deal with it yourself. It’s free, it’s called KL Detector and it works on Windows XP and above. All you have to do is install and run the program and it sits quietly in the System Tray, looking for any suspicious activity, such as the creation of log files – recording your keystrokes. The idea is to leave it running for around ten minutes, while you type a few words in Notepad and WordPad, doodle in Paint, hit a few numbers in Calculator and visit a few websites. (Your anti virus software needs to be temporarily disabled). If it senses anything untoward the icon in the system tray changes colour and clicking it presents you with a report of what it has found, so fingers crossed….

06/05/13

 

Flashy Lappy Lock

How secure is your PC or laptop? The logon password only deters casual snooper and is easily overcome, if you know how, but here’s a neat little freeware utility that adds another layer of protection, and you don’t have to remember any passwords. It’s a physical key, and since only you have it, no one else can login in to your computer. You may have noticed that your PC doesn’t have any keyholes, but it does have USB sockets, and this is where your key fits. VSUsbLogon converts an ordinary USB flash drive into a high security electronic key. To use it all you have to do is switch on your PC and when you get to the logon screen, insert your USB key and Windows opens. If you like you can make it even safer by setting a PIN code. It’s easy to set up and use, but keep your wits about you during installation, as there’s an offer to install a browser toolbar, just click Cancel if you don’t want it.

08/04/13

 

Pass Friend

We probably shouldn’t tell you about this little freeware utility program but if you promise not to use it for nefarious purposes, and are genuinely forgetful, then Windows Password Recovery might one day get you out of a lot of trouble. If fact it doesn’t do what it says on the tin, and it won’t recover a forgotten Windows logon password, that’s a bit more involved, but it does the next best thing, which is to blank the Administrator password, so you can get back into Windows. Regular readers may recall that this feature has been available for some time on under-the-counter software, but this one looks much more respectable, and is a whole lot easier to use. It works the same way though, and the first thing you have to do is burn a Recovery CD, which creates a Linux boot disc that’s used to start PC and launch the toolkit. Select the Password option and a few clicks later the old password has been blanked. This disc contains a number of other tools, for recovering lost or deleted data, and creating a disk image or clone. Altogether a very useful package and definitely something you should keep handy, just in case...

25/03/13

 

Freeze Out Felons

We’ve all see it a thousand times in the movies and on TV; the secret agent, bad guy or disgruntled scientist – delete as applicable -- breaks into an office, plugs a USB drive into a computer and downloads files vital to the plotline. The trouble is this also happens in real life, and USB drives make it really easy to quickly steal large volumes of data from PCs, transfer viruses, infect machines with malware and spyware and generally do all sorts of bad things to computers. Unless you know your way around the nether regions of your PC, there’s not much you can do about it, or is there? Well, here’s one simple way to keep out nosey parkers, it’s a small freeware utility called Phrozen Safe USB. Once installed it gives you there simple options: do nothing and all USB ports operate as normal; make USB drives read only, so you can see what’s on the drive but files cannot be copied, stopping viruses and other nasties in their tracks; and disabled mode, which makes drives and their contents invisible so nothing can be moved in or out of your PC. There’s also an option to start Phrozen Safe with Windows, though this might need a little work from the developers as it requires Windows User Account Control to be disabled, which some users or administrators might not be comfortable with, though presumably they’ll be even less happy if their data is stolen or the PC becomes infected…

25/02/13

 

Rooting Out Malware

Staying on top of the ever-present threat of malware is a never-ending chore as newer and smarter methods are developed of infecting our PCs. One of the most pernicious tools used by the malware community is the Rootkit, a family of stealthy programs designed to hide inside websites and downloads. That can be remotely controlled and instructed to tell your PC to send out spam messages, and you may never knows it is happening because they are good at covering their tracks and bypassing conventional malware detection programs. Enter stage right a new weapon in the fight, the Bitdefender Rootkit Remover. It’s a small freeware program (X86 and x64 bit versions are available) and it actively seeks out the most widespread rootkits, including such notable nasties as Alipop, Cpd, Fengd, Fips, Guntior, MBR Locker, Mayachok, Mybios, Mebratix, Plite, Ponreb, Niwa, Necurs TDL/SST/Pihar, Ramnit, Stoned, Whistler XPaj Yoddos, Yurn and Zegost – new definitions will be added as and when they are discovered. A typical scan takes just a few seconds and if anything is found it will be removed, and you system cleaned after a reboot.

11/02/13

 

Java Jumble

There is a great deal of confusion surrounding the recent warning that a security loophole had been discovered in Java 7. Quick as a flash news spread around the web and social media, and like a Chinese whisper it changed from a simple caution into a global meltdown. Part of the reason for the panic was that Java, was being mistaken for JavaScript, resulting in lots of PC users mistakenly disabling the latter in their browsers, and uninstalling Java from their computers. So let’s try and put things straight. Java, developed by Oracle is a known as an Object Oriented Programming language or OOP, used to create applications that run inside programs or browsers. JavaScript is a scripting language for media content in browsers, using plain text, and it is not associated with the current threat. So how much of a problem is it? The exploit undoubtedly exists though how widespread it is, is very difficult to gauge but already Oracle has released advice and an update Apple has disabled Java, and Mozilla is pointing Firefox users to an add-on called Click To Play, that stops Java plugins installing. So should you panic? No, but it’s as well to play safe and if you don’t think that you need it on your PC, and most users probably won’t miss it, then it’s worth disabling Java on your PC and any Java applets in your browser, until the dust settles. The former can be done from the Java dialogue box (security tab) in Control Panel, which there’s advice for Firefox users here. Once again, this doesn’t warning affect JavaScript in your browser and disabling it will stop some website features from working.

21/01/13 

 

Don’t Pay The Ransom

According to Microsoft the number of malware infections on Windows Vista and W7 PCs is well below that of old operating systems like Windows XP, which is obviously good news, but there are plenty of other threats to be concerned about, like Ransomware. This is software that by one means or another, gets on to your PC and then proceeds to blackmail you into to paying a fee to get it removed or your machine stops working or files are locked. Some of these programs can be almost impossible to remove using normal techniques and plenty of suffers have either had to bite the bullet, and stump up, or wiped their drives to get rid of it. There may be another solution, a freeware tool called Anvi Rescue Disc. Basically it’s a specialised Linux distribution that boots your PC from the Anvi Disc in your CD/DVD drive. It is specially configured to seek out and destroy the most common Ransomware infections, and as an added bonus it allows you to access the files on your PC, so if it cant help you tackle the intruder you can at least copy important documents to a flash drive. The download is a zipped ISO file and all you have to do is use a freeware utility like Imgburn to create a Rescue disc on a blank CD. If you get caught simply pop the disc into the drive and boot from the CD/DVD drive and click the Scan button. As an added bonus the download also includes a USB Flash drive version, in case your CD/DVD drive is also locked or you are using a netbook or ultra slim laptop that doesn’t have an optical drive. Defintiely one to keep handy in case of accidents or you get careless..

14/01/2013

 

Click It Clean

Not that you have anything to hide, but web browsers do handle a lot of information, much of it private or personal or just plain none of anyone else’s business so you wouldn’t want it hanging around for anyone to see, would you?

 

You’ve probably enabled the basic clear history features in your browser, but the History file is only one of the places where browsers store information, and if you are using Firefox, there are lots of cache’s, temporary files, cookies, Local Shared Objects (LSOs), open tabs and URLs all over the place, so here’s a way to purge them all, with just one click.

 

Appropriately enough it’s called Click & Clean and it’s a free add-on for Firefox, and it can even be set to do the deed whenever you exit the program.

07/01/13

 

Sixty Second Scanner

It sounds a bit improbable but Bit Defender’s 60 second Virus Scanner promises to sweep your PC for nasties in around a minute. Needless to say it is impossible to carry out a full virus scan in that sort of time, not does this program do anything about an infections it finds, and just points you to commercial software for removal, and it took a couple of minutes to complete on our office PCs but if you’re a boots and braces sport of person then it doesn’t hurt to get another opinion on the security status of your computer. The program itself is quite small and rather than install vast virus definition libraries on your PC it uses Cloud technology to analyse key areas of your system. By the way, there’s no need to switch or uninstall your existing security software as it works quite happily alongside the main AV and anti malware programs. Okay, it’s not going to replace proper security software, but it is quick, and free, and you never know, it might just find something that your full time anti-virus program missed.

10/12/12

 

Spybot’s Back!

Here’s a real blast from the past, one of the first and once again, one of the best anti-malware utilities has been revamped and has just finished it’s beta trials. It’s Spybot Search and Destroy, version 2, and first impressions are that it’s now even better at seeking out the nasty little infections that even the most cautious PC users can sometimes pick up. There’s an all-new user interface offering a number of new options, and they are all easily configured to suit your way of working, and risk factors. Scans can take a while – it was over 50 minutes on one of our well used office PCs -- but it’s clearly probing deeply, and thoroughly into the innermost recesses of your filing system, where some of the really sneaky malware programs lurk. There’s a quick scan option too, which you can use for follow up checks, once you’ve carried out a deep scan. After it has finished it presents you with a list of the threats it has found and you can decide which of them are real, and those, which may be false alarms, you can then fix any problems it has found and be reasonably sure that your system is as clean as it can be.

26/11/12

 

Security, By The Numbers

Okay, so you have the latest anti-virus and malware software, a decent firewall, and you never open unsolicited email attachments, but when push comes to show, just how safe is your computer? Hopefully it will never be tested in anger, but there is a way you can run a quick check to make sure that all of the critical elements are in place and working. It’s a free tool called Opswat Security Score and it runs through a batch of tests that includes your AV software, firewall, hard drive encryption, file sharing, anti-phishing, patch management and backups. It only takes a couple of minutes and at the end of it you see an easy to understand colour coded pie chart, with scores for all of the components tested, and an overall rating that and log, that you can save, and use to compare with later scans, to check if the improvements you’ve made are working. The program is small, doesn’t need installing and will even run from a flash drive, so you can quickly check all of the PCs under your control.

19/11/12

 

Defeat the Drive Bys

Working on the assumption that you can never have enough protection for your PC, here’s another security program that you might like to add to your defences. It’s called ExploitShield, it’s free and it specifically targets one of the most devious types of browser infections, often referred to as the ‘drive-by’ exploit, which can get on to your PC simply by visiting a website. These nasties include such notables as the Blackhole Exploit Kit, Phoenix, Incognito, Eleonore, Sakura, etc., and they lurk unseen inside things like Java scripts and Acrobat files. ExploitShield runs in the background constantly on the lookout for threats and it blocks, quarantines and automatically alerts you of any attempts to infiltrate your machine. It keeps a full set of logs so you can keep tabs on what’s been happening to yours, and all of the other PCs in your home.  

22/10/12

 

Cover Your Tracks

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, your PC is constantly spying on you, recording your every move, every document you’ve opened, every website you’ve visited, it stored deleted files, which can be recovered and it probably knows what you are thinking as well. This sort of thing can be quite troubling, even if you haven’t got anything to hide, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can curb your computer’s nosey habits and its enthusiasm for logging everything that you do with a freeware application called Anti Tracks Free Edition. Here’s a few of the things it does; it wipes all web browsing, Windows and application usage history, permanently and securely shreds files, and previously deleted files and folders, hides files and folders that you don’t want others to see. There’s also a ‘watch out the boss is coming’ mode that hides programs and files you’re working on with a single keystroke when someone you don’t want to see what you are up to comes into the room. Sneaky stuff and well worth a look, even if you are not paranoid… 

10/09/12

 

Ghost Surfer

The Internet is becoming a scary place. It’s not just the crooks and villains out to steal your bank details, but the looming presence of multiple Big Brothers snooping on everything you do. We know a bit about what Governments and security folk get up to bit it’s all the other commercial organisations we have to worry about as well, that take an interest in everything you do, from the contents of your weekly shopping basket to your gripes and moans, photos and friends on Twitter and Facebook. It doesn’t have to be like that, though, and there are ways you can stay anonymous on the web and if you fancy seeing what it’s like to drop off the grid have a look at CyberGhost. It’s a free VPN or virtual public network that hides your IP real address making it appear that you are in a completely different location or even another country. The free version is not quite industrial strength and you have to register with an email address, but it is enough to keep the regular snoopers and low life nosey parkers from watching what you are up to, and there’s the option to upgrade to a more powerful paid-for version is you like what you see. The free version has a few other limitations and you can’t send emails but there are ways around this and there are plenty of useful hints and tips for preserving your privacy.

23/07/12  

 

Clean Up Your Privates

What secrets does your PC store about you and your web browsing habits? I’m not just talking about the odd smutty website that you might accidentally stumble into, but all of the other information that we reveal about ourselves online, from bank account details to purchasing goods and services, that quite frankly are no-one else’s business but your own. You would be gob smacked at just how much information your PC has about you, and we’ve looked at several cleaners in the past that wipe clean the many hidden and protected files that store this sort of information, and here’s another one. It’s a freeware utility called Privazer, and on the evidence so far, it looks like it could become a must-have classic along the lines of CCleaner and the venerable and much missed Spider. In addition to eradicating data held in the sneaky index.dat files, it gets down and dirty with a number of other often overlooked repositories in the Registry, and it even gives external drives and memory cards the once over, recovering lost space and cleaning up old or outdated entries as it goes. The first scan can take a while – it does a very thorough job – but thereafter scans only take a few minutes, or you can schedule a cleanup when you’re not using the PC. All in all a very impressive piece of software, and you have to wonder how long it will be free as in-depth cleaning at this level is something many people would be happy to pay for!

16/07/12

 

Keep It Safe

How many passwords and PINs are you trying to keep track of? If you are anything like us you probably at least a dozen and probably a lot more, so how do you remember them all? The worst possible method is to write them down on a piece of paper. It’s just asking for trouble, either you’ll lose it, or it will be seen by others. Either way your security is compromised and you’ll be in for a lot of grief. So what’s the answer? Easy, you need a small program to store all of your passwords, and keep them safe by encrypting them but make them simple for you to get at with a single master password. There’s no shortage of such programs, but here’s one that’s particularly easy to use, and it’s flexible too; you can store just about any type of password, and if you have trouble creating new ones it’ll even help with that with its built-in password generator. It’s called Password Safe and it’s completely free Open Source software with no strings or hidden tool bars, give it a try, you will be impressed!

02/07/12

 

More Free Protection

It seems unlikely that there’s anyone still out there with an unprotected Windows PC, but just in case there is, or you are unhappy with your present security software then here’s another free antivirus program for your consideration. It’s called PCTools Antivirus Free, it comes from Symantec and it’s a collection of basic antivirus and malware utilities that should provide a fair amount of protection against nasties. The only thing to watch out for is that it installs a browser toolbar without asking first, but it’s easy enough to remove from the add-ons menu. We also found that it was quite resource hungry, so it might not be the best option for an older PC, or if you are short of memory. For the record our favourite free AV program remains Microsoft Security Essentials but if you want to try something different, it may be worth a look.

25/06/12

 

Safer USB Sticks

When you consider how much time and effort we put into protecting the data on our PCs it’s surprising how easily it is all forgotten when we use USB memory sticks to store or move files from one PC to another. A growing number of memory sticks and flash drives from the better known manufacturers come with some form of password protection or encryption software but the vast majority remain unprotected, so any files they contain can be easily opened if the drive is lost or stolen, so what can you do? Simple, download a freeware program called USB Flash Security. Once installed on the drive is locked and will only be accessible when the correct PIN or password is entered. Any data stored on the drive is encrypted so even if anyone manages to get past the lock it won’t be readable. The only limitations are that the free version can only be used on drives up to 4Gb capacity, and watch out for the offers to install toolbars when you download the program, just remember to select the Custom Installation option and uncheck the boxes if you do not want them.

11/06/12

 

Norton Safe Giveaway

Norton are not known for giving stuff away but here’s a rare opportunity to grab yourself free browser add-on for securely storing your passwords and PINs and anything else you want to keep secret. What’s more, providing you do it before October, it promises it will be free forever, and apparently there are no strings attached, but we have no doubt that a paid-for version is waiting in the wings, so don’t hang about… Norton Identity Safe is a cloud service, which means that all of your data is encrypted and uploaded to a remote server, so they are protected and you can’t lose them, even if your PC or laptop is stolen or blows up. This also means that you can access your ‘safe’ on any web-enabled device, anywhere in the world – so it’s ideal for keeping credit card details in case of loss or theft. The only thing to watch out for is that we found it switched off automatic password login in Firefox, which can get a bit confusing, especially if you decide not to use it, but it’s a simple matter to turn it on again from the Tools menu.

21/05/12

 

Mind Your Own Business

With all this talk of tracking cookies and changes in Google’s privacy policies it’s no wonder web users are becoming paranoid about who’s watching them online. Well, here’s another way you can keep your browsing activities to yourself, and that’s a free add on for the most popular browsers, namely IE, Firefox, Chrome and Safari. It’s called DoNotTrack or DNT. It is set to recognise more than 600 trackers, and is automatically updated as more of them are found, but the really interesting feature is that it keeps you in the loop, with an icon on the browser’s toolbar that shows how many tracking cookies it has found and blocked on each web page. If you click on it, it tells you who they are and whether or not the site contains any social or ad network buttons, that can also keep an eye on what you are up to. You’ll be amazed at what’s going on, and yes, you are right to be paranoid…

12/03/12

 

Cleverer Cleaner

There are more PC cleaner utilities than you can shake a stick at and many of them are a complete waste of time. Of course there are exceptions and our long-time favourite is the venerable CCleaner, which gets rid of those pesky hidden index.dat files that your PC uses to secretly record your web browsing activities. Here’s another freebie utility that’s worth checking out. It’s called Xleaner and it’s main selling point – not that it will cost you anything – is the enormous range of options and applications that it targets. Before you jump in, though, be warned that it’s not for novices and it lets you zap a lot of things that you’ll either regret, or are best left alone. It cleans up all of the obvious and not so obvious log files in Windows (including index.dat) plus the history and cache files of all of the main browsers, it also deals with MS Office and there are tools for checking your memory and hard drives. The only point to watch out for is be careful where you click when you go to the download page. There are lots of other items on the page and you can easily be led to products and services that you may not necessarily want.

27/02/12

 

Winking Good Security

There’s been a lot of talk about facial recognition and security lately, and it all sounds very interesting, but perhaps a bit futuristic and high-end and not for the likes of you and me. Well, not any more, and you can try it for yourself with a free piece of software called KeyLemon. The basic free version of the program takes over the Windows Logon, and instead of entering your name and password (you can still do this, by the way), you simply look at the webcam and it matches your facial features against its records and if you are who you claim to be, it lets you in. You can’t fool it either, using a photograph as it asks you to blink your eyes, and it tracks changes in your face by automatically recording one image of you each day. The more sophisticated paid-for versions can do all sorts of other tricks, like logging on to your Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter accounts, it can also be set to take pictures of anyone who tries to use your PC without your permission. Face it, you want to try it out…

30/01/12

 

On Guard Offline

More Microsoft generosity, this time it’s Windows Defender Offline, a new tool for checking and zapping malware and rootkit infections on your PC. As the name suggests, it works off-line, and outside of Windows, by booting your PC from a USB drive or CD/DVD that is created from the download. This means it can scan all of the nooks and crannies of your operating system that are difficult, or impossible to get at when Windows is running, and catch the sneaky little beggars that defy normal detection methods. The program isn’t due to be launched for a while but you can give it a road test by downloading the pre-release Beta. This is pretty much the final version, though of course it comes with the usual disclaimers for beta software.

12/12/11

 

Microsoft Security Survey

How secure is your computer and how good are you are identifying and protecting your PC and identity against online threats? You may think you are being careful, but the reality is far too many of us allow the bad guys to infect our machines with viruses and malware or are careless with our personal information and financial data, so how do you find out if you are at risk? Easy, take the Microsoft Computer Safety Survey, it’s a series of simple questions that asks you about the measures you’ve taken, your security settings and your online behaviour. At end you get a score, with advice on how you can improve on it. It only takes around five minutes and it’s time well spend that could save you a lot of grief.

14/11/11

 

Comodo Cleans House

Comodo have been around for a while producing a very decent free Windows firewall and anti-virus software, but did you know they also have a System Cleaner? Well, they have, it’s free and it removes corrupt Registry entries, deletes duplicate files and orphan archives, zaps pesky history files and trails plus, so it claims, speeds up your PC by clearing out the junk. Now as you know we’re always wary of such claims but as cleaners go this one seems innocuous enough and doesn’t do anything drastic without your say-so. It probably will help pep-up really well used PCs that haven’t been cleaned before and are a bit sluggish, but as always, do not expect miracles.

26/09/11

 

That’s Mr, Not Dr Who

How many times have you visited a website and wondered who is behind it? This is something you may need to know one day, if you buy something online and it doesn’t turn up, or you have been diddled. In fact this information is available on the web, but only if you know where to look, so this excellent little utility, called Mr Who, could turn out to be really useful. It’s incredibly easy to use, just enter the website address and a moment or two later up pops everything you might want to know, including where the website is based, who hosts it, and details of the owner, including their registered address. The program is small, just 1.5Mb, so it could be on your PC and up and running in not time flat.

02/05/11

 

Where Are They Now?

Few applications have been so aptly named as Creepy, that’s what it is, and what it does. Basically it’s a geolocation aggregator, which is a fancy way of saying it collects together publicly available location data about people from social networking services, like Twitter and Flikr. It presents the information as a map, along with more specific details of their whereabouts, past and present, with latitudes, longitudes, times and even what they posted while they were there. This is seriously scary stuff and a clear warning to anyone using social media that their privacy can be very seriously compromised. It’s also a godsend for lazy stalkers (this information is available by other means), we were able to track the movements of several well-known celebrities just by entering their Twitter usernames.  

18/04/11

 

Indestructible Cookie Killer

We have tended to get a little complacent about cookies lately. They’re the small text files left behind by websites and most time they’re fairly benign and easy to get rid of. In fact most browsers can be set to do it automatically at the end of each session, but now there’s a new type of cookie to watch out for. They’re called Evercookies and they can be real swines to get rid of as they’re self replicating and store data using several different cunning mechanisms. It’s going to take a while for the mainstream cleaners to catch up with this new critter but there’s a new one in town, still in Beta form, that can do the job. It’s called BleachBit and Evercookie eradication is just one of its many talents. It cleans up a lot of other hidden and persistent storage bins in Windows and the most popular browsers. As always, you use Beta software entirely at your own risk as there may yet be unforeseen bugs. It seems very stable but you should avoid using it on mission critical machines or any PC where you haven’t backed up all non-replaceable data.

21/03/11

 

Secret Snaps

We’ve spoken of steganography before but for those that missed it, it’s a way of embedding hidden messages and files, like audio recordings inside other files, such as photographs. If done well the picture looks perfectly normal and the file size is virtually unchanged. Steganography programs we’ve looked at in the past have tended to be a bit fussy, but here’s a new one, called Silenteye, that does the job swiftly and easily, and I’ll wager you can’t tell that the second image contains a hidden message (approximately 1000 words of text). Obviously programs like this can be used for good or ill, but if you are travelling abroad in a foreign land with a less than friendly regime and need to get a private or personal message home then this is the way to do it. Terrorist be warned, though, images may look normal to the untrained eye, but if you are being watched your mail will be monitored and if they are looking for hidden messages, they will be found…

14/02/11

 

Pep Up Your Passwords

I am grateful to Lifehacker for this simple but effective method to strengthen your passwords, making them highly resistant to ‘brute force’ and ‘dictionary’ hacking methods. These basically attempt to crack your passwords by trying every conceivable combination of alphanumeric characters and common words. The solution is to use one or more specialist characters or ASCII symbols that are not routinely used by these methods. You have to be a little bit careful as some specialist characters are not recognised by Windows, some web sites and password storage programs or ‘vaults’, but there’s plenty of widely used ones to choose from. These characters are generated by pressing the Alt key plus a simple two or three digit code, selected from the Numeric keypad (You normally have to press the Numlock key first). The trick is to use only one or two of these characters as too many of them could prove unwieldy, and to keep things as simple and memorable as possible make it the first or last character. There’s a fairly comprehensive list of mathematical symbols and special characters listed on the Word Top Tips  page, otherwise here’s a few simple to remember ones to try: Alt + 3, 4, 5 & 6  gives the four card suites (♥  ♣ ♠), Alt + 11 & 12 generate the male and female symbols (♀ ♂) and Alt + 16 & 17 produce right and left arrowheads.

24/01/11

 

Essentially Better

Microsoft Security Essentials has already proved itself to be one of the best, if not the best free antivirus and malware applications around, and now it has just got even better with the release of version 2. New features include beefed up malware detection, thanks to a tweaked heuristic engine, integration with Windows firewall and improved network protection with a nifty function that lets you monitor network traffic. It’s available now as an update for existing Security Essentials users or you can start off the New Year with a fresh approach to computer security with a clean installation of the program, just remember to remove your old anti-virus program first. XP SP2 users should be aware that you may need to download an additional filter package if you have been neglecting your updates, if so you will be advised and guided to the download link.

30/12/10

 

Bypass the Password

Passwords are one of life’s little irritants. To be fair, for the most part they are there to secure and protect but how annoying is it to have to constantly dream up passwords and usernames just to get into publicly accessible websites? We’re not talking about pay sites, or sites that have good reasons to limit access, but sites that you know are just collecting your details so they can send you advertising or spam. Of course you can always fill out the form and put in a phoney email address, but here’s a much easier way. It’s called BugMeNot, and it shares working logins for thousands of websites. Don’t worry, it’s not going to get you into any sensitive or naughty sites, just the ones that play hard to get at, and if you have some logins you want to share then you can add yours to the library and help other weary web wanderers. 

27/12/10

 

Hide and Protect

There are all sorts of ways you can protect data on your PC and encryption is one of the safest and most obvious methods, but in most cases your encrypted files remain visible, and although they may not be readable, the fact that the file is encrypted is immediately obvious to anyone snooping around your PC that you have something to hide. Here’s another way, it’s called Password Folder and the idea is that the file or folder is hidden from view, so it effectively becomes invisible. The program also prevents anyone from opening or modifying the file without the correct password. It’s really easy to use, just drag and drop the files or folders you want to protect into the Password Folder window, or select them from an Explorer type window. This is a beta version but it appears to be very stable and bug-free, nevertheless, the usual precautions apply and you try it at your own risk.

29/11/10

 

Password Perils

If you didn’t already know it you should be aware that the password protection on your PC is about as much use as a chocolate teapot. There are things you can do to make it harder for anyone to get at your files, and we’ll come to that in a moment but first, at one time or another many of us forget our logon password. Faced with an inaccessible PC, some users resort to drastic action, like re-installing Windows. There’s really no need, blanking the password using a special type of Linux boot disc is fairly straightforward. Cracking a password takes a little longer but again it’s easy enough if you know what to do, and one way is to use another Linux live CD boot utility called Ophcrack. Download the .iso file and use a utility like Imgburn to create a CD. Just boot the PC from the CD and watch it hack away at your password. Most times it only take a few seconds to crack a 4 - 6 character password otherwise it might take a few minutes but if you thought your PC was protected, think again, it’s scary stuff.

 

The good news is it can get you out of a hole if you’ve forgotten your password. The bad news is anyone with access to your PC can use it, so how do you go about safeguarding your computer? Creating a really long password helps, but it has to be 14 characters or more to cause trouble for programs like this. Even that’s not going to stop anyone using a password blanking utility, so what can you do? One solution is to activate your PC’s BIOS password – check the manual for details. This will stop anyone attempting to use a live CD to boot your machine, but that’s still not going to protect your data if anyone steals your PC or removes the hard drive. If you have anything on your PC that you don’t want anyone else to see the only solution is to encrypt it, or better still encrypt the whole drive. There’s no excuse not to, it’s reasonably easy to do in most versions of Windows 7, some drives have their own encryption facility otherwise there are plenty of free encryption utilities available.

15/11/10

 

New CCleaner V3 Released

For those of you new to Windows, and with apologies to old hands, you may be interested to know that Windows stores the address of every web site you’ve ever visited, from the day you first switched on your machine. This information is stored in a hidden and protected file that you can’t delete by any normal means. Some say this secret file, one of several called index.dat, was put there at the behest of the FBI but whatever its origins, the fact is your PC is spying on you. There are ways to rid yourself of this unwelcome snooper and for the past few years I’ve been recommending a freeware program called CCleaner (CC originally stood for Crap Cleaner…), and that’s not about to change as the latest version 3 is released. It’s now even better, with new tools for safely wiping drives, added support the latest Internet Explorer and the new browsers, tools for Startup and System Restore, an option to run CCleaner at startup and lots more besides. It’s still free, though there’s also supported paid-for version, if you go for the free edition make sure you pay attention during the install as it will install toolbars unless you uncheck the options.

08/11/10

 

Avert Disaster

At least the malware scourge doesn’t seem to be getting any worse, thanks to better PC security, increased user vigilance and more sophisticated anti malware software. The only trouble is, what happens when you let down your guard and a malware infection gets past your defences? There are a number of excellent free cleaners available but knowing which one(s) to use can be a problem, which is where Avert comes in. Think of it as the Swiss Army Knife of malware cleaners, it doesn’t actually do any cleaning itself but rather draws together the best available tools in one simple to use package, which you can deploy the next time something nasty gets onto your PC. It supports up to 8 scanners and cleaners, which it run automatically. It also does a Registry backup, comes with a copy of our old friend CCleaner and several other handy tools that can help to fix the damage caused by some malware programs. Definitely one to keep handy, just in case…

20/10/10

 

Microsoft Malware Zapper

For years Microsoft left computer security pretty much up to third-party applications to zap viruses, whilst they concerned themselves with plugging the various security loopholes with security updates. Then, about a year ago they released Security Essentials, an excellent free anti-virus program, and now they’ve finally caught up with the malware menace, with the Microsoft Malicious Software Removal Tool. It’s a post-infection cleaner, that targets the latest and most virulent nasties that are likely to find their way onto XP, Vista, Server and Windows 7 and these include the notorious Blaster, Sasser, and Mydoom worms and their many variants. Even if you run regular scans of other malware cleaners it’s still worth letting this one check your system.

20/09/10

 

Secure Your Sticks

USB memory sticks are great, but they can also cause problems, especially if they are used to transfer data between PCs. They can easily become carriers for all sorts of nasties, especially malware, and they can be unreliable, so it it’s wise to keep backups of irreplaceable data. If that sounds like a problem waiting to happen, here’s a solution. It’s a Spanish program called USB Security Utilities, and the only reason I’m telling you that is because once the program has been downloaded, extracted and loaded onto your flash drive you need to go to the Configuracion menu tab and change the operating language to English, unless you are a fluent Spanish speaker of course. From that point on it’s all pretty obvious. The program displays detailed information about the drive, you can scan it malware, immunize folders against infection, explore files and folders and make backups of files stored on the drive. It works on memory cards and portable hard drives too, so you can keep all of your media squeaky clean and in tip-top condition.

13/09/10

 

I Spy With My Little DLL

Let’s face it. The bad guys are not going away and for as long as we choose to use computers – and yes that includes Mac and Linux systems -- they are going to try and get at our data. To that end you can never have enough anti-virus and malware tools at your disposal, so here’s another one. It’s called SpyDLL Remover and that just about sums it up. Its main focus of interest is Dynamic Link Library or DLL files, which are a component of most programs, and they are easy to infect, especially with nasty little devils called Rootkits. Not only does SpyDLL hunt them down, it has the facility to destroy them as well, which can be surprisingly difficult. The program is small, and it’s a standalone application so it doesn’t even have to be installed on your computer.  Well worth trying, even if you run a variety of other security tools, you never know what it might find, and if it finds something you are not sure about there’s an on-line analyser to tell you exactly what it is.

09/09/10

 

PCs Save The Planet

I am sure that you are doing your bit to help save the planet, driving less often, switching things off when they are not being used, recycling and so on but have you ever wondered how much energy your PC is wasting? Wonder no longer, and maybe save yourself a few pounds with a freeware application called Granola. It’s an energy saving utility that promises to cut your PCs consumption, but without sacrificing performance or usability. It works by using the DVFS (Dynamic Voltage and Frequency Settings) feature in most PCs under 5 years old, basically by taking control of the CPU, running it at full speed when it’s working hard, but throttling it right back when it is idle or engaged on undemanding tasks. It might not sound much but the developers reckon it could knock over £30.00 a year off your electricity bill, reduce your carbon footprint by more than over 200kg of CO2 and improve a laptop’s running time by around 15%. Users are also encouraged to sign up for an online account and add their energy saving contribution to the Granola community. It’s free, it might even save you a few bob, so what have you got to lose?

09/08/10

 

AdAware Up the Stakes

AdAware was one of the first free anti malware programs and it continues to do a good job though it has been rather overshadowed of late by flashier and more refined freeware offerings, like Microsoft’s Security Essentials. So rather than throw in the towel they’ve made it faster and the new improved AdAware Free has extra features, including a ‘core’ virus scanner, real time protection, new rootkit and malware removal tools, it also has a scheduler and a download guard specifically for Internet Explorer. Mind you, it’s also got a lot bigger and the download is a whopping 122Mb, so don’t try it on a dial-up connection…

15/07/10

 

Hunt Down the Hijackers

No, it’s not just another malware cleaner, HiJackFree from Emsisoft is a really powerful tool that shows you clearly what is running on your computer, the good and the bad stuff, tells you exactly what it is and what it is doing, and most importantly, lets you stop it or remove it if its not supposed to be there, or causing problems. HiJackFree monitors all running processes and associated modules, control all Services, you can view all open ports, manage LSPs (layered Service Providers) and control all Explorer and browser plug-ins and manage all of your autoruns. Maybe it’s not for absolute beginners but it’s easy to use and understand and if you suspect your PC has been infiltrated this is one weapon you definitely want to have in your armoury.

28/06/10

 

Senf and Sensibility

Senf is an unlikely sounding name for a security tool but if you deconstruct it you come up with SEnsitive Number Finder and that pretty well sums it up. When this freeware application is running it scans your PC looking for the files and folders that may contain private and personal numbers that you wouldn’t want to fall into the wrong hands. In particular it looks for credit card and social security numbers and so on. It’s not terribly smart, and not as discriminating as Identity Finder, which we looked at a while back so expect it to throw up a lot of irrelevant hits but it is thorough and there’s always the chance it discover a long-forgotten file that you would rather not have hanging around on your system.

10/06/10

 

Safer Sticks

It seems that every week or two there’s a story in the press about some idiot loosing a USB flash drive full of state secrets or thousands of personal records. It shouldn’t happen, and it doesn’t have to, flash drives will inevitably get lost or left lying around but the data they contain can be easily made inaccessible by encryption. That’s where a free utility called USB Safeguard comes in, simply load it on your drive and you can opt to encrypt the whole drive, selected files, or shred the lot. The program is really easy to use; it asks to nominate and confirm a password, which it helpfully offers to store on you PC, then all you have to do is click the button to encrypt the whole drive, or drag and drop the files or folders you want to protect. Decryption is equally straightforward, just pop the drive into your PC, you will then be asked for the password and to select the files or folders that you want to unscramble.

06/05/10

 

Predatory Protection

Here’s a brilliantly simple way to protect your PC when you are away from your desk or office. It’s called Predator and it works a bit like an old style security dongle. The idea is that once the program has been installed a ‘key’ is loaded onto a USB flash drive. When the drive is removed the screen blanks, the keyboard and mouse are disabled and the PC is safe from interference. When you come back just pop in the drive and enter the optional PIN code and Windows is up and running again. It’s foolproof; well almost, just don’t lose your key…

29/03/10

 

Tinkering With Passwords

I am sure that I don’t have to remind you how important it is to create really strong passwords if you are going to do your banking and buying online. It’s no good just using the kids or pets names and don’t commit the cardinal sin of using the same passwords or PINs for everything. Yes, I know it’s difficult to remember them all, but it’s really important, so here’s an easy way to create a strong password, and recover it if you forget. It’s called WinTinker Easy Password Generator and this is how it works. You enter your easy to remember password into the box and the program (downloadable Windows and on-line version available) jumbles it up and substitutes characters, making it practically unguessable, though just slightly recognisable. If you forget it just go back to the program and tap in your memorable password and it will be recreated.

11/03/10

 

Avast! 5.0 Me Hearties

‘Tis the season for updates and the latest old favourite to get a makeover is Avast!, one of my favourite anti-virus packages. Avast! Free 5.0 is the new version and it is faster and lighter on resources than previous incarnations. Highlights include a new Behavioural Shield and Code Emulator features, which look for suspicious activity that may not be covered by current virus and malware signature libraries. There’s also a new, easier to navigate interface, you can switch off the annoying voice using the new Silent/Gaming mode and if you like what you find, you can upgrade to the paid-for Pro version which has, amongst other things, a new Sandbox facility that keeps tricky programs and dodgy downloads in quarantine until they can be checked out.

21/01/10

 

Devious Drives

Here’s a useful little privacy tool for those who want to keep files and folders on their PC safe from prying eyes. It’s called NoDrives Manager and the idea is very simple; using a spot of Registry editing it makes one or more drives attached to your PC completely invisible to Windows Explorer and all of your programs. In fact they are still there, but only you know that, and they can still be accessed as normal but you’ll have to manually enter the drive letter, path and file name. If you want them back them to reappear all you have to do is fire up the program and enter your password.

04/01/10

 

Total Protection

How safe is that file that you have just downloaded? Hopefully if it contains any viruses or malicious content your security program will pick it up, but there’s always a chance that something new might slip through the net, so what can you do? Here’s one solution, download a little utility called Virus Total Uploader. It installs as a Context Menu item, which basically means that when you right click on a file in Windows Explorer then go to Send To, and you’ll see it on the list. All you have to do is click on the Virus Total icon and it uploads the file to an online file checker, which scans it for nasties. If the file has been checked before you, and it passes the test, you’ll get the OK in just a few moments, if it’s something it hasn’t seen before it may take a few minutes, and if it gets a clean bill of health you can go ahead and open, use or install it. It doesn’t claim to be infallible but if all you want a quick and simple health check on an unknown file, this is certainly worth trying.

17/12/09

 

See Your Key

Several times, when I’ve been asked to solve a problem or help setup a friend or relative’s Wi-Fi system or laptop I’ve fallen at the final hurdle when I get to the point when I have to enter WEP or WPA encryption key. Either it’s been thrown away, with the box that the router came in, or the piece of paper it was written down on has been lost. Yes, I know most routers can be reset to the factory defaults without too many problems but it can be a messy business if there’s more than one PC on the network. Here’s a way to extract the WEP/WPA keys that are stored on a computer, it’s called WirelessKeyView and it recovers all of the keys stored by the Windows Zero Configuration service. You can then save them to a text, html or xml file, so they won’t go missing again!

19/11/09

 

Lockdown Your Laptop

Here’s an interesting way to protect the security of your laptop. LAlarm is a small program that monitors your PC, sounding an alarm or sending you a email or SMS alert if it is stolen, tampered with or moved from its normal area of operation. The theft alarm senses if a USB memory stick or the power lead is removed, the perimeter alarm checks the user’s IP address so if it is connected to another network, wirelessly or by cable, it sounds an alarm or sends an alert. You can also program a variety of responses to an alarm, like enabling the webcam, to record an image of the thief and automatically destroy sensitive data on the hard drive if it is stolen. It’s a clever idea, ideal for business users and students, and a lot less cumbersome (though obviously not as secure), as wire and cable locks that tether the PC to an immovable object.

04/010/09

 

Free Virus Protection from Microsoft goes Live

As reported earlier this year Microsoft’s very own free anti virus program, Security Essentials, has now finished its beta trials and is ready for download. The finished version doesn’t look significantly different from the beta but behind the scenes a various bugs and quirks have been fixed. First impressions are very good, it’s reasonably fast, unobtrusive and doesn’t hog resources and according to the experts provides a high degree of protection. Only time will tell if there are any gaps in it defences but if you’re a reasonably low risk user (you avoid dodgy websites, pirate downloads and opening unexpected attachments), and you’re unhappy with your present anti-virus program then it’s worth giving it a whirl. Incidentally, despite warnings about not getting along with other AV programs it didn’t seem to mind sharing disc space with Avast! and AVG on our test machines.

01/10/09

 

Big Red Boss Button

Uh oh, watch out, here comes the boss and you’re busy updating your Facebook profile. Fear not, just click the ‘Don’t Panic’ button on your desktop and the offending apps are quickly and discretely hidden from view, from the Task Manager as well, if you’re really paranoid (or you have a really tech savvy boss…). Don’t Panic is a highly configurable ‘Boss Key’ program that hides selected applications at the click of a mouse or press of a keyboard shortcut, of course I can’t condone it’s use, you should be working, but we’ll let it slide for those very rare occasions when you do a spot of private surfing on company time, it could just keep you out of trouble.

28/09/09

 

Hard Times for Hard Drives

Now that many of us are using external hard drives, or internal slaves, and disposing of old PCs, the problem of how to ensure security and safely remove personal data from those drives is becoming ever more important. There are plenty of programs that provide the nuclear option, of destroying all of the data on a drive or PC, but what if you just want to erase one drive or one partition? That’s not so easy, and what if you absolutely, positively have to make sure that all the data you’re destroying is completely beyond recovery? Needless to say it can be done, and here’s how. It’s a freeware program called Hard Drive Eraser. It’s easy to use, just tell it which drive or partition you want to zap, choose which of the four powerful shredding algorithms you want to use, (DoD, US Army, Write Zeros or Peter Guttman – the later for the terminally paranoid), then let it get on with the job.

21/09/09

 

Warning! New Microsoft Update Email Trojan

Microsoft never sends out updates by email so you should instantly bin this latest threat, which has been doing the rounds over the last 24 hours, I’ve already had about 50 of them sent to me. It’s really easy to spot, the Subject line says ‘Critical Update for Microsoft Outlook and if you open it, it says: Update for Microsoft Outlook / Outlook Express (KB910721). Obviously it’s nothing of the sort though it looks very plausible and has none of the usual clumsy spelling and grammatical errors. If you click on the link you will be taken to a spoof website and instantly download a nasty Trojan, though there are some reports suggesting that the payload may have changed in the past 12 hours. Either way don’t open it and do not on any account click on the link, and at the risk of repeating myself, remember that, Microsoft never sends out updates for Windows by email.

24/06/09

 

Identify Yourself

I’ve been wittering on about privacy and security for years with scare stories about hackers and identity theft but have you ever wondered what, exactly, there is on your computer that could be useful to a fraudster? You probably have no idea, it could be anything from PINs and passwords to credit card details, your date of birth, bank and credit card numbers, passport and National Insurance info, the list goes on and it’s all useful stuff to felons but the point is, without knowing what’s on your PC, you don’t know how much of your identity is being exposed. That’s where Identity Finder comes in, it will show you, in just a few seconds, what information is on your drive, and if you feel it is too much of a risk, you can make it go away by shredding it, or protect it by encrypting it.

11/06/09

 

Laptop Locator

What would happen if your laptop went missing or was stolen? In all likelihood that would be the last you’d ever see or hear of it again, but maybe not. If a freeware application called Prey was installed there’s a fair chance that it might be able to call home, possibly to let you know where it was, or maybe send you a photograph of the thief. Prey is a simple program that runs silently in the background. It builds up a detailed picture of its whereabouts, the status of the computer, running programs and connections plus information about the network it is connected to. It also takes a snapshot of the desktop, and if it has a built-in webcam, it records and image of whoever is using it. The first time it is is able it connects to an network or wi-fi hotspot and sends this data back to a website or email address that you specify.  Needless to say, one of the first things a thief will do is format the drive, but there’s a chance that before they do they will have a poke around to see if there’s any valuable personal data on the machine, and that could give Prey enough time to send back the evidence that might help you to recover your property. It's available for WIndows, Mac and Linux, unfortunately the Windows version hasn't been translated into English yet, but it's all pretty obvious.

08/06/09

 

A Meaner Cleaner

At the risk of being accused of obsessive-compusive behaviour, here’s yet another cleaner utility that removes all the bits and pieces on your PC that can compromise your privacy. It’s called FCleaner and so far I’m impressed! We are of course talking about all of the data your PC keeps about what you get up to. There’s the obvious stuff, like Internet History, cookies and of course the notorious secret and hidden Index.dat files.  FCleaner goes much further, though and it also empties the Recycle Bin, Clipboard, Memory Dumps, Chkdsk file fragments, temporary files, log files, Recent Documents, Run Histories, old Prefetch data, Explorer MRUs and much more, In IE it removes the cache, cookies, history, auto saved form info, download folder, types URLs, not to mention index dat. It also scours and wipes clean Firefox, Opera, Safari, Chrome and the log files in a host of popular applications. And as if that wasn’t enough there’s also a Startup manager, an uninstaller, and a very useful selection of tools. It’s powerful. So use it with care and only go into the Advanced section if you know what you are doing. Definitely worth your serious consideration if you want to keep your doings private and your PC clean!

04/06/09

 

Wipe Yourself Clean

As you may know I am concerned about PC privacy and I’ve been banging on for years about the secret and protected log files in your computer that record just about everything that you do. To that end I’ve recommended a succession of programs that erase these sneaky files, starting with the groundbreaking Spider, which first appeared almost ten years ago. Sadly Spider couldn’t make the transition form Windows 98 to XP so for the past few years the job has fallen to the excellent Crap Cleaner (CCleaner) and it still does an excellent job, but here’s a new cleaner for you to try, it’s called Wipe and very good it is too. It really gets into all of the little nooks and crannies, clearing out scores of pieces of personal data that Windows and your applications leave behind, including, of course, the notorious index.dat files. It’s highly configurable and very thorough so do check what you are deleting. If you want to keep yourself to yourself this one is definitely worth investigating!

18/05/09

 

Conflicker Checker

Contrary to some of the stories circulating in the more excitable sections of the media millions of PCs didn’t suddenly blow up following the much-anticipated reactivation of the Conflicker C virus on April 1st. In fact, at the time of writing nothing much seemed to have happened and the world moved on to more important matters. Nevertheless, this virus, and its ilk do present an ongoing threat, especially for PC owners who do not keep their security software and Windows Updates current. By the way, if you have any concerns about Conflicker C and malware in general and you think your PC may be infected I wouldn’t ask Google. I typed in ‘Conflicker C Removal’ a couple of days ago and the first three hits all led to websites carrying the virus!

 

If you have been lax with your security updates then your best bet is to download the free Microsoft Malicious Software Removal Tool, which scans your PC for Conflicker and a raft of other nasties, but in the end the best way to avoid becoming infected is to install a decent anti-virus program and regularly sweep your PC with cleaners like AdAware, A-Squared and Spybot.

02/04/09 

 

Scupper the Snoopers

I am sure that you know that Windows spies on you, but in case you’ve missed my many warnings over the years, you may be interested to learn that your PC keeps a record of every website you’ve ever visited, from the day you switched it on, in secret, hidden and protected files called index.dat. We’ve looked at several free utilities that can clear these files, and I’m happy to continue to recommend the excellent CCleaner as the most comprehensive privacy tool available, but there’s a new kid on the block. It’s called Index.dat Analyzer, and its main selling point is that it lets you see what’s in your index.dat files, with details of the web address, plus times and dates and it allows you to selectively delete what you find there, just in case there’s something you want to keep. It’s simple to use and of course, completely free.

05/01/09

 

IE Vulnerability, Emergency Patch

Just days after a new security loophole in Internet Explorer was published on a Chinese website the hackers and crackers set to work and to date thousands of websites have been compromised. Just by visiting the site (using IE) you can download a Trojan and other nasties, which are designed to steal online game passwords but the payload is changing all the time. The vulnerability is in an IE dynamic link library (dll) file called oledb32 and Microsoft is rushing out a patch, which it started releasing last night.

 

The chances of UK web users copping an unfortunate one are pretty slim (unless you visit a lot of Far Eastern porn or gaming sites) but you might want to switch to Firefox for a while, until the fuss dies down. If you don’t receive MS updates, or you want to keep your PC safe then you can download a temporary emergency fix from Prevx: http://www.prevx.com/ie7.asp, which unregisters oledb32.dll. It shouldn’t make any difference to most sites but you can use it to re-register the file when everything settles down or after you’ve installed the patch

18/12/08

 

Unforgettable USB Drive

If the media is to be believed Government employees are a forgetful lot, losing laptops and leaving CDs and USB drives containing sensitive data all over the place. It’s easily done; though and short of chaining a USB drive to your wrist sooner or later you are going to inadvertently leave one plugged into a PC. Here’s a simple little freeware program that might help jog your memory. It’s called Flash Drive Reminder and all you have to do is download the zip, extract it and copy a couple of small files to your drive. In fact there are two versions, Standard displays a reminder message when you plug the drive into a PC, and another when you log off or shut down the PC; the Quiet version just displays the logoff and shutdown messages.

11/12/08

 

Destroy After Reading

How often have you wanted to say that? Oh well, maybe it’s just me but here’s something for budding secret agents, or anyone who want to send someone a private message that can only be read once, after which it will automatically self-destruct. It’s called Privnote and the idea is you write your message in the box provided, click the Create button and it generates a one-time URL or web address. You send this to the recipient, they visit the site, read the message and when they close the browser window it’s gone forever (unless they copy the message). The URL only works once, so they (or anyone else) cannot go back and view it again. And there’s one last trick, if you enter your email address it will automatically notify you when the message has been read.

24/11/08  

 

Crackdown on Clickjacking

A new, or rather a newly revised threat may be coming to a browser near you. It’s called Clickjacking and it can affect all browsers. It first appeared a few years ago but little was heard of it after the first warnings. It looks like it might be back though the threat level is still quite low at the moment but these things can quickly spiral out of control. Here’s how it works. If a hacker can get access to a website they can fiddle with buttons and graphics so that if you click on what appears to be a legitimate link what actually happens is you are directed to a phoney or fake site where you unwittingly enter personal details, or in a worse case scenario, clicking the link downloads malicious software onto your PC. Of course the same kind of thing can be found on less reputable websites.

 

Microsoft and Mozilla have released fixes in the past but there is a way to stop clickjacking in its tracks, on Firefox at least, and that’s to install an add-on called No-Script. This creates a white list of trusted sites by blocking any attempt to run an unapproved or suspicious script within a web page. If the site is blocked by NoScript all you have to do is click on the ‘S’ logo that appears in the bottom left hand corner and decide whether to allow the page to load. It’s a bit of a chore, but if you take security seriously, or you visit the odd dodgy website then it will give you some extra peace of mind.

20/10/08

 

One Click Encrypt

We are all concerned about privacy and security but relatively few PC users actually ever get around to doing something about it. Now there’s no excuse, a small freeware utility called EncryptOnClick can encrypt any file on your PC in just a second or two. Just open the program and select the file, tap in your password or PIN and its done. The file is compressed and scrambled using strong 256-bit AES encryption, which will keep most nosey parkers at bay. The program is small, under 4Mb, and it fits easily on a USB pen drive, so you can protect your files when you are on the move.

31/07/08

 

Double-Quick Data Destruction

If you sell or otherwise dispose of your computer you must delete all of the data it contains. This is vitally important, not just from a security standpoint, but it’s also technically illegal to sell on a PC with Windows and many commercial programs installed unless you also transfer the licences, though this is almost impossible to do.

 

Active KillDisk remains my favourite method for deleting the data on a drive, but here’s a new one, called Darik’s Boot and Nuke, and this program really lives up to it’s name! Just boot the PC using a CD, DVD, pen drive or floppy and it totally destroys all of the data on every drive it finds. UI suspect this will be of interest to anyone who needs to lose a lot of data in a hurry, when the authorities come a-knocking but it has plenty of entirely respectable applications, particularly for anyone selling or recycling a computer. Just be careful how you use it, there’s no going back once it has started…

24/07/08

 

New AVG Annoyance

It’s hard to get too upset with AVG, after all they have been providing us with top-notch virus protection for free these last few years, but the release of AVG version 8 has annoyed a lot of otherwise loyal users. Over the last few weeks popups have been appearing that appear to suggest that AVG was no longer free and to stay protected you had to upgrade to a paid-for version. The fact is AVG 8 is still free for personal use, but of course AVG would rather you purchased the better-specified commercial version – well, you can’t blame them for trying. For the record the free version can be downloaded from http://free.avg.com

 

The latest problem is a component in AVG 8, called Link Scanner, which has been driving some website owners potty. The idea is when you do a web search it pre-checks all of the links, looking for malicious sites. The trouble is websites get bombarded with fake hits from PCs running AVG 8, clogging up the web with pointless and wasteful traffic. Some users also suggest that the Link Scanners slows their PC down, which could well be the case on older machines.

 

Anyway, you can disable Link Scanner from AVG’s Control Panel, but this slaps an ugly red exclamation mark over the AVG icon in the System Tray. The simpler solution is to go back to AVG website and download the program again. Run the installer, follow the prompts and this time you will see a Select Startup Type window. Check Add or Remove components, click Next and a few clicks later Component Selection appears. Uncheck Link Scanner, click Next and finish the installation. When you next open the Control Panel Link Scanner will be no more.

10/07/08

 

Clever One-Click Clean Up

As I am sure you know I have been waffling on for years about how your PC monitors your web surfing activities and logs every website you’ve ever visited, from the day you switched it on, in a hidden and protected file called index.dat. Regular readers may also recall a couple of utilities I’ve been recommending to wipe these files. Back n the days of Widows 98 my cleaner of choice was Spider, sadly it was never updated for XP but then along came Crap Cleaner – CCleaner, as it is now known – which does a brilliant job. Now we have a new utility that works with CCleaner, called Click&Clean,. Basically it lets you put a quick-launch icon – appropriately enough a toilet roll – on your Internet Explorer or Firefox toolbar. You need to have CCleaner installed on your PC first, and the new icon has to be added manually, so don’t forget to read the instructions. One click and it launches CCleaner and your tracks are covered.

 

I see only one small problem and that is the browser has to be closed in order for CCleaner to work, so the trick is to remember to click the toilet roll just before you exit your browser.

03/07/08

 

Bird Passes The Word

I don’t know about you but I’m always struggling to think up new passwords for websites and the myriad of other things I need to gain access to these days. As we all know using simple words, such as names and places for passwords is just asking for trouble as they can be easily guessed by someone who knows you, or about you, or cracked using ‘brute force’ dictionary methods, so here’s something else to try. It’s called Password Bird and all you have to do is enter a special name, special word and a special date and from that it creates a good quality random-looking alphanumeric password, but made up from bits of your special words and numbers, which should make it a little easier to remember  

23/06/08

 

Keep It Clean!

We all know that when you use a PC you leave a trail, half a mile long, in ‘log’ and ‘dat’ files and Registry entries detailing everything you’ve been doing, from the files and programs you’ve opened, to the websites you’ve visited. It’s no small concern as it can include sensitive and personal information, like passwords and PINs for example. It’s not too difficult to keep your own PC’s record keeping in check, with a free utility like CrapCleaner (see Software section) but what happens when you’ve been using someone else’s computer?

 

This little program, called CleanAfterMe is what you need to tidy up after you. It’s a small freeware application that you can keep handy on a USB memory stick and when you run it you have the option to delete all of the data and changes you may have left behind during the session. If you are a regular user of other people’s computers and value you privacy and security then don’t leave home without this really handy utility.

19/06/08

 

Rooting Out Rootkits

We’ve spoken about Rootkits before, they’re nasty little pieces of malware that can open up your PC to hackers, but are also really difficult to detect and eliminate because they hide inside legitimate applications and files. McAfee, the anti-virus people have come up with a new Rootkit removal tool, called Rootkit Detective. It’s still in its pre-release beta version but it seems stable enough and compared with other Rootkit removal tools we’ve tried, it’s blindingly fast. Although it didn’t find any infections on our office PCs it did flag up a few files, belonging to uninstalled applications, that shouldn’t be there, so it’s definitely worth a try, especially if you have any concerns about the security of your PC.

29/05/08

 

Home is where the Webcam is

There have been a number of well-publicised cases of home-owners with security camera setups, spotting villains breaking in to their houses on their laptops while they were on holiday. In most cases this involved the use of some pretty fancy kit, but here’s a simple, and so far free system that can do exactly the same job, without the need for any expensive hardware or software. It’s called Home Camera and all you have to do is download a small piece of software, hook up your USB webcam, and you can monitor the image from up to 4 cameras anywhere on the world on any PC running a standard web browser. If your camera supports motion detection it can send you an email alert and an image to your mobile phone. Home Camera is still undergoing Beta testing, which is why it is free, but when the service begins in August it will still only cost around £8.00 a year, and anyone who signs up for the beta trial is promised a good discount.

25/05/08

 

Laptops Aloud

It’s not long until the holiday season begins and with the widespread availability of Wi-Fi in hotels and airports, and Wireless Hotspots all over the place I’m guessing that a lot of you will be taking your laptop with you on your travels this year. The only trouble is they’re so nickable, all it takes is a momentary distraction, and it’s gone. Well, this little freeware utility isn’t going to stop you doing something daft, but if might just alert you to the fact that someone is interfering with it, and if it does get pinched, they won’t be able get at the data stored on it, at least not easily. It’s called Laptop Alarm and the idea is you launch it when your laptop is unattended, Windows is automatically locked, and if anyone messes around with it, unplugs the power cable or moves the cursor, it starts shrieking. It’s no good if they try to mute the sound either, because it overrides the volume controls. As I said it’s free, so what have you got to lose, apart from your laptop…

12/05/08

 

 

Key to Security

One of the scariest threats to your PC and personal security is the keylogger. These are tiny malware programs that can get onto your PC by a variety of means, in some cases all you have to do is visit an infected website. Once on your computer it sits silently in the background, recording every keystroke you make, and sending the data back to the mothership, where it is scanned for passwords and PINs, which can be used to empty your bank account or set up phoney accounts. This little freeware program, called AntiKeylogger can’t help you if you are already infected, so check your PC before you install it, but it will stop any new ones from working. Unlike most programs of this type it doesn’t try to detect an infection, instead it interferes with the mechanisms that all keyloggers use to record data, so there’s no need for it to be regularly updated with signature files, providing you with near effortless, long term protection.

21/04/08

 

Lock Your Windows, With a Cellphone

If your PC or laptop has a Bluetooth adaptor, and your cellphone is similarly equipped, then here’s something that might interest you. It’s a free utility called BtProx, and the idea is you can lock your PC, so no-one else can use it, unless you, and your cellphone are in the immediate vicinity. As I’m sure Apple Mac fans will remind me, it’s not exactly a new idea, but no matter, its a simple and effective way to protect your computer, though, just make sure your phone battery doesn’t run out, or you will be in trouble…

14/04/08

 

Phishing Fixer

If you are fed up sifting through fake phishing messages purporting to come from banks, credit card companies and financial institutions, ebay and PayPal trying to extract your details, then help is at hand. It’s called Iconix email ID. It’s an add-on for Outlook Express, Outlook, Windows Live, Hotmail, AOL and Yahoo webmail and GMail that automatically identifies and flags up messages that come from legitimate sources.

 

Incoming emails are checked against a database of registered senders – 300 so far -- and if it passes the test an icon appears next to it in your Inbox, so you can see instantly if it is genuine or not. It’s all free, the software only takes a few moments to install and as far as I can see the only minus points are that the sender’s list is biased towards US companies – it could do with some UK banks and building societies on the list -- and they’re still working on compatibility with other popular email clients.

07/04/08

 

Virtually Infallible Protection

How would you like to completely protect your PC from viruses, malware and the myriad of nasties floating around the Internet?  Of course you would, but even with the best security software available there’s always the chance something will get through, but maybe there is a solution…

 

What we have here is a freeware program called Returnil Virtual System that creates a sacrificial ‘mirror’ or clone of your system on a virtual partition on your hard drive. Your PC boots into the virtual system, so your original system remains isolated and protected. If something does make it through your defences no harm is done, you just reboot and any changes the malicious software has made are automatically erased and you reboot into a newly created system.

 

It’s a bit like The Matrix, a PC within a PC, spooky and quite tricky to get your head around at first but once you get used to it, it makes a lot of sense and your PC will become virtually bullet-proof.  

31/03/08

 

Free Software Security Program on Test

If you don’t mind being an unpaid guinea pig then head over to the Secunia website and download the Beta (Release Candidate 1) version of Personal Software Inspector, which checks all of the programs on your PC and tells you if any of them represent a security threat, or are past their use by date. If there is a problem it offers to help you find patches and updates. The program flagged up 8 programs on my well used office PC, none of the alerts were serious and about half of the programs I knew to be no threat at all, so it’s not infallible and I suspect there’s still some work to be done but it’s reassuring to have a second opinion, and it could just find something nasty that you or your other security software has overlooked.

27/03/08

 

Free Wireless Security Checkup

How safe is your wireless network? If the answer is you don’t know, then you really should head over to the Pure Networks website and carry out their free Network Security Scan. Of course it’s a prelude to selling you something, in this case an application called Network Magic, and there’s a link to a free trial, but there’s no obligation and it really is worth the visit for the free security scan. It raised a couple of issues on my system, which until now I thought was pretty tightly secured.

20/03/08

 

Free Lightweight Virus Scanner

Traditional thinking suggets that you should only have one anti-virus program on your PC. That’s normally good advice as they can have problems with each other’s ‘signature libraries’, which usually contain inert samples of virus code, but here’s one that seems to get along with other AV programs, on my test bed PCs at least.

 

It’s called  EAV Antivirus Suite Free Edition v5.61, and as the name suggests, it is a freebie.  Part of the reason it is so amenable is the fact that it focuses on Windows, where most infections are likely to hide and it keeps a constant check on incoming files. It is also very small, the download is less than 2Mb and signature updates are tiny but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily ineffective. Several users have reported that it has found infections missed by other more elaborate programs. It also has a number of useful tools, geared towards deep-cleaning Internet Explorer and Windows. It’s not without a few rough edges, though, it doesn’t check emails, the menus appear to have been written by someone with only a passing acquaintance with English, and there’s no automatic scheduling or update facility, but these are relatively minor niggles, it works, it seems to get on with other AV programs and it’s free.

13/03/08

 

Surfing with Onions….

A growing number of people, concerned about personal privacy and security are opting to get off the grid but that’s always been a bit difficult with the Internet. It knows where you are, and what you are doing, but there are ways to become totally anonymous.

 

One way is to use TOR, or The Onion Router. It’s a network of virtual connections or relays, dotted around the world, operating in complex ‘layers’ (that’s where the Onion bit comes in) that stops you from being identified or tracked when you are online. Ironically much of the development work for TOR was sponsored by the US Naval Research Laboratory but now it’s gone independent, and it is free to use. All you have to do is download a piece of software, which handles your connection to the network, and the encryption of data, and you are in business. It’s an ongoing project, and there are still a few wrinkles and speed issues – you may notice a slowdown on your browser -- but if you are exchanging or downloading sensitive or private material and want to be invisible then give it a try, but read the overview and introduction first.

21/02/08

 

Fancy Free Firewall Foils Felons

If you haven’t got a firewall on your PC (shame on you), you are using the less than adequate Windows Firewall in XP (and to a lesser extent, the one in Vista) or your current Firewall is squabbling with your applications or blocking email and web connections there here’s something else to try. It’s Comodo Pro, version 3, and it’s entirely free, and as far as I can see, there are no catches. It’s fully featured too, with all the bells and whistles you would expect to find on the best firewalls, with control over both incoming and outgoing connections, and plenty of configuration options, but it’s ready to go straight out of the box, with industrial-strength protection if you leave it in auto mode.

22/11/07

 

Slicker, Swifter SpyBot S&D

I have been recommending the SpyBot Search and Destroy malware cleaner ever since it appeared in 2002 and a brilliant job it has been doing too, though I have to say that it has been looking a little tired of late, so I am very pleased to report that a new version has just been released. Spybot S&D 1.5adds full Vista support, and in response to many requests, restores support for Windows 95.

 

After installation the first thing it does is create a Registry Backup, then it offers to Immunise your system, by tweaking your browser, to prevent it from downloading malware, and this version includes support for more browsers, including Firefox and some of the newcomers. After that it’s ready to scan, and there are some obvious improvements. It looks slicker and it runs quicker than previous versions, and like all new malware cleaners, or updates of old favourites, it’s geared up to detect the latest threats and is almost certain to find something on your PC that the others have left behind.

28/09/07

 

Fancy Free Firewall

Time was when ZoneAlarm ruled the roost for the free firewalls. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great program and does a brilliant job, and you can’t argue with the price, but some say that it has got a bit cumbersome over the years, and there have been one or two glitches along the way. I’m not saying R-Firewall is going to be any better but it’s another Free firewall, and like ZoneAlarm it is free. It’s also very sophisticated with several features you won’t find elsewhere, and because of that it looks a bit daunting, but don’t be put off, it’s worth getting to know, and definitely worth trying if you don’t get on with ZA.

01/08/07

 

Recycle with Freecycle

With so much attention focussed on recycling and carbon footprints I think it’s worth reminding you of a web service called Freecycle. Basically the idea is you give stuff away you no longer need to people who want it. Rather than throw unwanted items away, to clutter up landfill, or mess around with on-line auctions, simply let people in your area know that you have an old fridge, bed, sofa, piano or whatever, and it’s free to anyone who wants to come and pick it up. All it takes is a quick signup to your local group, and you are ready to go. As a subscriber you can also post a message on Freecycle for things that you want, it’s a great way to get rid of your old junk, and maybe acquire some fresh ‘treasure’ and it won’t cost you a bean, or harm the planet.

18/07/07

 

Remove those Rogues

Have you ever been tempted to respond to a pop-up ad for free software that promises to rid your PC of malware? Well don’t! Most of it is rubbish or ‘scareware’ and it will almost certainly report lots of ‘false positives’, and then offer to get rid of the nasties, when you cough up for the full version of the program.

 

In you have been caught you may find it difficult to get rid of the program and it will bug you endlessly. If so try RogueRemover; it seeks out and eradicates these nasty pieces of work, and it won’t cost you a penny! By the way, if you have any doubts about malware cleaner programs you can check them out on the most excellent Spyware Warrior website.

06/07/07

 

Squaring Up Against Malware

As regular readers and visitors will know for the past few years I have been recommending all PC users regularly scan their PCs with malware cleaners like AdAware and SpyBot, and more recently Windows Defender. They are all free and can help to keep your computer free of the little nasties that generate pop-up ads and spy on your web surfing activities.

 

Well now there’s a new kid on the block, called A-Squared Free and like the old stalwarts it searches out and zaps infections, but you have the option to put anything it finds into ‘quarantine’ first, so you can check it out, just in case it is legitimate. It also scans the Registry for traces but it doesn’t offer real-time protection. It is first and foremost a removal tool so you should use it in conjunction with other cleaners or you can upgrade to the more advanced, paid-for, A-Squared Anti-Malware 3, which wil lset you back around £20.

27/06/07

 

Beware Wi-Fi HotSpot Scammers

If you take your Wi-Fi enabled laptop with you on your travels then, like me, you are always on the lookout for a free Hotspot hook-up when hanging around at airports, hotels or cafes. If you do your homework and visit sites like free-hotspot.com. Before you go you should be able to find one. However, be on your guard if you are casually trawling for a free connection, you could be opening up your PC and its contents to a hacker.

 

Here’s how it works. A crook with a Wi-Fi laptop sets up shop by hanging around a legitimate hotspot. Their PC is logged on to the web and set up for Internet Connection Sharing. Along comes our weary traveller and the Wi-Fi monitor on their PC flags up the bogus connection as open and available. They think it is Christmas, click on it to log on and bingo, the two PCs are linked by an ‘ad hoc’ or peer-to-peer connection and the data on the victim’s laptop is exposed.

 

You can avoid it happening to you by firstly avoiding suspiciously free hotspots, and secondly by re-configuring Windows XP to only accept Infrastructure or Access Point connections. To do that right-click on the Wireless Connection icon in the System Tray (next to the clock) and select ‘View Available Networks’, now click ‘Change Advanced Settings and select the Wireless Networks tab then click the Advanced button and make sure that ‘Access Point (Infrastructure) Networks Only’ is checked.

14/02/07

 

Rooting Out Zombies

If you are a regular visitor to these pages you should know all about the current epidemic of zombification. For those of you that missed it, this is when a PC is hijacked and used with other PCs to spread Spam and viruses. Some experts reckon that as much as 80 percent of Spam could be coming from zombie PCs, working together in so-called ‘botnets’.

 

Some of these infections, which often hide in downloaded software called a ‘rootkit’, are extremely devious and may not show up on a routine anti-virus scan, so how can you tell if you have been infected? It’s not easy but if you know your way around Windows a built-in utility called Netstat can help, by displaying all of the attempts to use your PC’s network and Internet connections. To fire it up go to Run on the Start menu and type ‘cmd’ (without the quotes) and this opens a DOS-like window, at the flashing prompt type ‘netstat –an’ (again no quotes and the list of connections. It probably won’t mean much to you but check the list of ‘Foreign’ IP addresses, as this is where the rootkit infection will show its hand.

 

If you are not sure what to look for a free Microsoft utility called TCPView provides a slightly more informative insight into what’s going on and if you right-click on an item and select Properties it will tell you something about the ‘Process’ and what program it belongs to, and if you don’t recognise the name try Googling it.

28/01/07

 

Create Virtual Encrypted Drive

It’s gradually sinking in that we are all going to have to take computer security a lot more seriously. Many of us now use our PCs to store huge amounts of personal information, bank and credit card details and things we want to remain private. Firewalls and security software helps keep out hackers and other types of intrusion, but what would happen if someone stole your PC or laptop?

 

CryptoExpert 2007 Lite keeps your data secure. It creates a virtual drive (or drives) on your PC, which works just like a regular drive and anything you store in it is automatically encrypted. If you want to open the file then you need to enter a password.

06/12/06

 

AVG Anti-Spyware

As regular readers will know I’m a big fan of the freebie Spybot and AdAware malware cleaners and have been recommending them since they first appeared. Windows Defender (nee Giant AntiSpyware) from Microsoft, also free, does a good job and it’s going to be bundled with Vista. Well, to cut a long story short after a couple of weeks of intensive testing I’m adding another cleaner to the list and this one comes from our old friends at Grisoft, who are behind one of the best free anti-virus programs AVG Free. It’s called, appropriately enough AVG Anti-Spyware. It does a bang-up job and if I tell you that it picked up no less than 35 infected files, including one rather nasty Trojan, on a PC that had just been scanned by another well-known cleaner (no names, no pack-drill), then you can understand why I’m so impressed with it.   

22/11/06

 

Is your PC Spying on You?

Do you know what Windows or the programs on are downloading or uploading right now? Hopefully it’s all quite innocent, an update or a patch or some sort, though maybe your PC is passing on information you would rather remain private but whatever it is doing wouldn’t it be nice to have been asked before it made use of your Internet connection?

 

XP-AntiSpy is a little freeware utility that lets you decide what things Windows can download in the background.  It’s easy to configure and you can choose to switch off a range of function, including some that may consider ‘suspicious’ or just plain nosey, like a facility that lets websites identify your PC, you can disable error reporting, hide your PC on a network and much more besides. All of the options are the sort of thing you could do yourself, if you had the time and inclination to poke around the Windows Registry and all changes are easily undone.

03/11/06

 

Save your Secrets

We’ve all got secrets but one of the worst places to keep them is on your computer. Anyone with access to your PC can get at the files it contains, even if you’ve set up password protection there are readily available ways and means to open, extract and read files without booting Windows, so what can you do?

 

If you have to keep sensitive information on your PC the only sure way to protect it is to encrypt it. Windows XP Pro has got built-in file encryption but that doesn’t help XP Home users. Here’s something that will, it’s a freeware utility called Cryptainer LE. After installation it creates a secure container or ‘vault’ for your files on the hard drive and any files that are dragged and dropped or copied into it are encrypted, using a strong 128-but key. True, there are even more powerful systems out there -- check out Cryptainer PE with 448-bit encryption -- but it’s certainly good enough to defeat all but the most well equipped spooks with supercomputers from breaking into your files

26/10/06

 

Rooting Out the Nasties

You may not have heard of Rootkits yet, but you will. A Rootkit is a set of tools, for creating a stealthy wrapper, for concealing malware. The trouble is anti-virus programs and malware cleaners have trouble detecting Rootkits, which means your PC could be infected by trojans, keyloggers, sniffers and heaven knows what else. They’re fairly new and so far the threat appears to be relatively low, and they’re not very good at propagating but they are becoming more sophisticated so now would be a good time to start keeping an eye on your PC. Sophos, the anti-virus people have come up with a freeware Rootkit detector, called appropriately enough Anti-Rootkit and you should download and run it as soon as possible, to see what’s lurking on your system. If it finds anything suspicious it will tell you what it is, where it is hiding and if possible, remove it for you. 

29/09/06

 

Protecting Firefox Passwords

The Firefox Password Manager is a useful facility and it makes logging onto protected websites a doddle but it is not very secure. Anyone using your PC can access your websites and see all of your saved passwords without let or hindrance. To protect your security you should set a password for the Password Manager and you, (and anyone else using your PC) will be asked to enter the Master password at the first attempt to log on to a password protected website. To set it up open Firefox then go to Tools > Options and select the Privacy tab. Click Set Master Password and enter your new password and a bargraph ‘Quality Meter’ shows how secure it is likely to be, depending on length and complexity.

04/09/06

 

Free Storage, Leave That Laptop At Home

The next time you go flying you might want to think twice about taking your laptop with you, following the events of the past few weeks. If a terrorist alert licks off while you are waiting to check in there’s a good chance you laptop and all of your electronic goodies will end up going into the hold, with no guarantee you’ll see it again at the other end.

 

Loosing a laptop could be a major problem, especially if it contains a lot of personal, sensitive or irreplaceable data, and it may not be covered by your travel insurance if it’s lost of damaged, so leave it behind.

 

If you need a laptop you can hire one at your destination; take any data or files you’ll need on a flash drive or CD, or better still, upload it to the web and then you can get at it on a borrowed or rented PC, or in an Internet café. It needn’t cost you a bean, either. There’s 25Gb of free online storage at Streamload, no hidden fees, no credit card details, just sign up for an account and you can send files up to 25Mb and download up to 1Gb of data a month.

30/08/06

 

Lock Your PC with the Matrix

There are various secure and very sensible ways to lock your PC when you are away from your desk but here’s one for fans of The Matrix. This small system tray application, called Matrix Screen Locker is freeware and it does precisely that stopping unauthorised use of your computer and at the same time displaying the familiar screen-full of tumbling green characters. Stare at it long enough and you really will believe you’re seeing things… Control of your PC in the ‘real world’ is only possible when you enter the correct password, and no young Neo, it can’t be defeated by pressing Ctrl + Alt + Del

14/07/07

 

SECRET TEXT IN PICTURE FILES

Terrorists and shady characters please look away because I am about to reveal a way of concealing documents inside digital photographs. It’s a technique known as Steganography. The idea is as old as the hills; secret messages have been tucked away inside familiar objects for centuries and this modern twist hides text in JPEG files. It’s a good way of hiding passwords and PIN numbers on your PC or you could use it if you’re travelling, to send a personal or private message in an email picture attachment.

 

All you need is a little freeware utility called JP Hide And Seek (JPHS) and the clever bit is the image doesn’t look any different and the file size is virtually unchanged. The hidden message is also encrypted and password protected so the chances of anyone finding it let along reading it is virtually zero.

06/07/06

 

PUT YOUR ANTISPYWARE TO THE TEST

How well is your security software protecting you? Usually the only time you’ll find out is when it detects an attack, or afterwards, when something has got through. A group of researchers called Intelguardians decided to put anti spyware tools to the test by designing a series of small and benign programs that attempt to probe a PCs defences. Each of the 20 or Spycar checks has to be carried out manually, by downloading a small file and clicking OK, at which point the program tries to install a Registry key, a piece of code, or change a setting. At the end of the tests you download a utility called TowTruck, which displays the score and resets any changes that may have been made. It’s difficult to say how meaningful the results are and how they relate to real-world situations, but a couple of programs we’ve been using for a while failed miserably so f nothing else it has prompted us to carry out a security review.

27/06/06

 

FLASH PROTECTION

We’re all using USB flash drives these days, and very handy they are too, for transferring data from one PC to another. But the next time you plug your drive into someone else’s PC just ask yourself, how clean is it? The ease with which you can move data around also makes it easy for viruses and malware to hitch a ride on your flash drive and back into your PC. The first thing you should find out when copying data onto your drive is whether or not the PC you are connecting to has anti-virus protection, you will be surprised how many don’t. One solution is to carry some protection with you, the freeware anti-virus scanner AntiVir can be run from a flash drive and it only takes up around 30Mb of space, which is nothing in these days of 1 and 2Gb drives. Select the Customise option during installation to load the program onto your flash drive, and you can run it from the Avcentre.exe file; to set up an immediate scan simply set one up from the Schedule tab and if there’s an Internet Connection available make sure you download the latest updates.

 

TRAVELS WITH MY DIGICAM

A couple of years ago, whilst on an overseas trip a digital camera containing scores of irreplaceable images was stolen from my hotel room. Now I’m slightly paranoid about losing another one and I make sure it’s safely locked up when I’m not carrying it, with the memory card stored separately from the camera, but my biggest fear is the safety of the images. They only exist on the camera’s memory card, so now at the end of every day I download new pictures to my laptop’s hard drive, and make a second copy on a USB flash drive, which I keep with me on a key ring. On my most recent trip I also uploaded several images to my personal web space and sent some prints to friends using TruPrint’s on-line digital printing service. They were delivered within 48 hours -- well before my return -- and at 10 pence each (plus 99 pence postage) were a good deal faster and only marginally dearer than sending postcards.

 

 

GET READY FOR THE 2038 BUG

Here's a quick heads-up for a potentially nasty little computer bug that could ruin your day on January 19th 2038… This one will only affect computers based on the Unix operating system, which includes some versions of Linux, and Windows 2000 machines running exotic applications may also be affected. The bug is similar to the notorious Y2K bug in that vulnerable computers will register the time and date incorrectly when the bug strikes. It’s all to do with the way Unix computers work out time. Instead of relying on an in built calendar they count seconds from the notional date the system was conceived, at GMT 00:00:00, on Thursday, January 1st, 1970, and like a car’s odometer going round the clock, on bug day it will run out of digits and the counter will roll over and probably reset to January 1st 1901 or another equally invalid date.

 

 

HOW SAFE IS YOUR WI-FI NETWORK?

One way to find out is to switch off your router and launch your Wi-Fi configuration utility. This should have signal strength or ‘Site Manager’ options that will display all of the wireless networks and devices in your immediate vicinity. If any show up bear in mind that if you can pick up their signals, they can pick up yours…

 

In the early days Wi-Fi security wasn’t such a big issue and the chances of your network being hacked into, even if you hadn’t enabled WEP encryption, was fairly small, but now the world and his wife has got Wi-Fi and there is a good chance that one or more of your neighbours has installed a system, which could be a problem, for you and for them.

 

Your Wi-Fi monitor should tell you if your neighbour’s systems are encrypted or not; if you find one that it is open then you should alert them immediately. You can usually tell how close they are to you from the signal strength reading.

 

Even though you have enabled the strongest WEP encryption your system supports (and you have switched it on, haven’t you…). Be aware that WEP is not infallible and it is worth changing the key every few months. I am sure that your neighbours are decent, honest people, nevertheless do not enable file sharing on any more folders than are strictly necessary, never share a whole drive and pop along to My Network Places in Windows Explorer every so often, to make sure that all of the PCs listed as being present on your network are known to you.  

 

 

PROTECT YOUR PC

It’s all very well setting up accounts and passwords on your computer but as you may know there are ways and means to hack into files and folders once Windows is up and running. If you are concerned about the security of your PC, particularly if you are using a laptop, then you should enable the PIN or password facility in your PC’s BIOS program. Once set this will prevent the machine from booting up by any means, including boot discs and USB devices. To switch on BIOS security you will need to enter the setup program that starts immediately after switch on. On most machines you’ll see a fleeting message that says something like ‘To enter Setup press Delete’ or a combination of keys, otherwise consult the manual. Once the BIOS opens the security options menu is usually clearly displayed. If you use it take good care of your PIN as BIOS security can be extremely tough to crack!

 

 

PASSWORD OR PASSPHRASE

How safe are your passwords? Most of us do precisely the wrong thing and use familiar and easily remembered words and names that a hacker, or someone who knows you could probably guess. It’s also a mistake to use any word that appears in an English or foreign dictionary because there are lots of 'brute force' password cracking programs that simply plough through hundreds of thousands of common names and words in the hope they'll get lucky.

 

The ideal password should consist of a random mixture of numbers and characters, upper and lower case -- the more the better -- and changed regularly, but how on earth are you supposed to remember something like ‘K9xp5G49au9’? The answer is you can't, but there’s an easily memorised alternative and that’s a 'Passphrase', a simple three or four word combination -- preferably meaningless -- that can’t be easily guessed, or cracked. Something like ‘cat ties knot’ would be very difficult for a hacker or software to crack, and the spaces between the words make it even more impenetrable, but you should avoid well known phrases or sayings, like 'To be or not to be’.

 

 

SPYWARE BEWARE

There are now a staggeringly large number of free and paid-for adware and spyware clean-up tools and websites. Some of them are promoted through pop-up windows on web pages that suggest your PC may be at risk by displaying ‘hidden’ information about your computer that the web site has apparently managed to extract. In most cases these are scams, intended to scare you and the details shown are quite routinely made available by your browser (type of browser, PC operating system etc.) and do not represent any threat to your PC’s security. Some commercial programs do work well, and we’ve included a couple of them this week, but most should be avoided. At best they don’t work as well as Spybot or AdAware (see last week’s Boot Camp) but a significant number of them generate false reports and some of them deliberately infect your PC with spyware and adware, or worse, so beware! If you are concerned that you might have visited a dodgy site or downloaded a suspicious program then check them against a list of rogue products and suspect antispyware sites at: www.spywarewarrior.com/rogue_anti-spyware.htm

 

 

SCAM REPORTS

In an ideal world there would be a mechanism for putting an end to scam emails but since most of those responsible operate overseas and use anonymous email addresses they are beyond the reach of the UK authorities. Email blocking and spam filtering software can help to reduce the flow but in the end only way it will stop is when people stop responding to them.

 

Various UK organisations keep a close watch on Internet fraud and if you are a victim or the target of a scammer then you can make a report to the SD6 Economic and Specialist Crime OCU (Organised Crime Unit). Its telephone number and email address can be found on the Metropolitan Police Fraud Alert website at: www.met.police.uk/fraudalert/index.htm. Other useful sources of information include the National Hitech Crime Unit:

www.nhtcu.org/nqcontent.cfm?a_id=12347, Home Office Internet Crime department: www.homeoffice.gov.uk/crime/internetcrime/ and the Internet Watch Foundation: www.iwf.org.uk/

 

 

ROGUE DIALLERS

Premium Rate diallers work by forcing the PC to dial up expensive premium rate lines. The good news is that they do not work on broadband connections, however, if you have recently switched from dial-up to broadband you should disconnect the phone cable from your PC’s modem. If you have a dial-up connection you should constantly monitor your PC to make sure that it doesn’t log onto the Internet without your say so, and you should ask BT or your phone provider to put a block on premium rate numbers.

 

 

INSTALL A FIREWALL

If you are new to broadband then you must upgrade the security of your computer as the ‘always-on’ connection greatly increases the risks of virus infection and hacking. A good quality virus scanner is absolutely essential and you should install a firewall program that monitors all incoming and outgoing connections. The firewall included in Windows XP is not adequate as it only checks incoming connections and wouldn’t prevent a Trojan or spyware program hijacking your files and sending data from your PC. (An upgrade of the XP firewall is planned for later this year).

 

 

SPOOF TESTER

There’s a quick and easy to use spoof ‘tester’ at: www.secunia.com/internet_explorer_address_bar_spoofing_test/

You will probably find that Internet Explorer fails the test miserably and at the time of writing Microsoft had yet to release a patch. There several third-party fixes floating around the Internet but at least one of them contains adware components. My preferred solution is to change to a spoof-proof browser, like Avant Browser. It is freeware and has many useful extras, including a built-in pop-up stopper and tabbed windows; it can be downloaded from: www.avantbrowser.com/

 

 

POWER CUT PROTECTION

Considering the cost of a PC and the value of the data most of them contain it is a false economy not to install an Uninterruptible Power Supply or UPS between your mains socket and the computer. They are not expensive, prices start at around £30 but the wrong type can be almost as bad as having no protection at all. UPS devices are normally rated by capacity, stated in volt-amperes or ‘VA’. Heavy duty models, for network servers and systems may be rated at upwards of 2000VA but for a single desktop PC and monitor a UPS rated between 300 to 500VA will normally be able to provide between 10 and 15 minutes worth of power. Many recent UPS have software that in the event of power cut will automatically save all of your data to disc before shutting the PC down.

 

 

HIDE FILES

Sometimes you might want to make certain files on your computer inaccessible, especially if you share your PC with others. There are plenty of password protection and encryption programs available for download, but sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. One easy way to protect a sensitive file is to rename it, and bury it deep inside Windows, or another unrelated application. Simply open Windows Explorer, right-click on the file and give it a new name with a fictitious three-letter extension – your initials perhaps -- then drag and drop it into a folder. Make sure you remember where you put it and check that you’re not using a genuine file type with the extension search engine at:  http://extsearch.com/

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