It is hugely important to maintain your PCs security level. Keeping your computer safe from viruses and other malware, and protecting your privacy and data from prying eyes; should all be a part of your ongoing computer maintenance programme. Not only that, but you’ll also need to have Windows itself. Finally you’ll need to have some kind of backup system in place just in case things go wrong.
Security is a big topic – one that could fill an entire Ultimate guide all of its own. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to stay on top of things. With the right tools you should be able to keep your computer and your data safe without really having to think too much about it. In this article, I’ll be explaining which areas you need to pay attention to and why.
Windows Update – Downloading and installing Windows Updates is an absolute must. Not only do these ensure your system files are up to date, but updates also address security vulnerabilities, both in Windows and other Microsoft programs such as Office. Fortunately, the process can be automated to the point of being (almost) effortless.
Go to Control Panel, Security Center and in XP click on the ‘Automatic Updates’ link at the bottom of the Window. In Vista, click on the Windows Update link on the left of the Security Center, then on Change Settings at the left of the Update window. The default setting is Updates are Automatic and downloaded daily (if available) at 3am.
If you don’t plan on having your computer running or being connected to the Internet at this time, then you have two choices. Either change the time to a more convenient one (I recommend, however, that you keep the checks on a daily basis), or just leave the settings as they are – Windows will automatically check for updates the next time your PC is running and online. This also applies if your computer is in Standby or Hibernate mode. Some updates do require user intervention – you may have to restart your computer or agree to a EULA. You can also opt to have the updates downloaded, but not installed without your say-so. You’ll need to set the time and frequency first, then click the second option from the top. Be warned, however, that you can only install updates this way if you are logged on with Administrator status.
Software Upgrades – It’s not just Windows that needs updating; other software, such as Mozilla FireFox browser and Thunderbird email program, also benefit from regular updates that maintain security as well as introduce new features. Usually, you’ll be offered available updates when you start the program – take the time to install them. Other applications, such as Real Player and Adobe Reader, have small programs that start with Windows, checking for the latest version. Once again, it’s worth keeping up to date.
Malware Protection – Malware is generally used as a catch-all term referring to viruses, Trojans, spyware, adware and more. Although these are all different, what they have in common is the fact that you don’t want them on your PC and should take steps against infection. Neither XP nor Vista offers much protection. Automatic Updates include the Microsoft Malicious Software Removal Tool, which, on the second Tuesday of each month, ‘checks your PC for infection by specific, prevalent, malicious software and helps remove and infection if one is found’.
Windows Defender, which is built-in to Vista and can be downloaded for use with XP from Microsoft’s Site, is designed to protect against spyware and adware, both by scanning your system for existing infections and offering ‘real-time’ protection against new threats. If you download and install the XP version, make sure you immediately update the definitions file as the latest version is not supplied with the program.
The protection offered by the Malicious Software Removal Tool and Defender are not really adequate. You need an anti-virus product that will make regular scans, monitor real-time threats such as those in downloaded software emails, and update its definition files automatically.
Although you can buy anti-virus software such as Microsoft One Care or Norton Internet Security – usually on a subscription basis – there are several free products, such as AVG Anti-Virus Free (http://free.avg.com) and Avast! Home (www.avast.com); both of which are quite popular downloads.
Firewall – If you have an internet connection, a firewall is essential. It is designed to stop unauthorised users gaining access to your computer by blocking incoming traffic, unless you have made an exception.
Normally, you would want to make exceptions for things such as anti-virus programs that need to know whether you have the latest definitions. This doesn’t take any great effort – you will be prompted the first time an attempt is made.
XP has had a decent firewall since SP2, and Vista’s firewall improves on this in that it monitors outgoing traffic as well, so if a program tries to ‘phone home’ it will alert you. To alter these settings in Vista you need to be logged on with administrator status and run ‘Windows Firewall with Advanced Security’ from All Programs, Administrative Tools.
Should you want to improve upon XP’s Firewall, try replacing it with Zone Alarm 8. This is a free download and can easily be found. One important rule here is that more is not better. Do not attempt to have two firewalls – or anti-virus products – running at once. At best it’s pointless; at worst they may conflict and cause problems.
Windows Recovery – Another essential piece of preventative PC medicine is making a recovery CD, so if the worst happens and your hard disk fails, or Windows installation is damaged beyond the reach of System Restore, you can get back to a working system.