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Is your Computer Data Safe?

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by Mike Yegwart

I was recently asked to give a few Internet tips for you the Bromsgrove branch, for which I take absolutely no responsibility, then or now. This article is not about teaching you about all the meanings and tricks of the trade, it's about keeping you computer data safe. So here goes.

Many of you will have read or seen reports about viruses and other things that are on the Internet. They are getting increasing "nasty", not only towards you and your PC, but also to each other one virus killing is off another and leaving itself behind. You know about damage to hard drives, now they send off secret instructions as to your PC's existence so hackers can come along and read your files, your "secret passwords", and use your PC as a remote location to do more of their dastardly deeds. So you get caught – not them.

And yes, you are at risk. Why? Because, you are breaking the golden rule of the Internet by opening, even requesting, unsolicited e-mails. Why else leave your name and your research enquiries all over the place?

What can you do? Don't panic! You need a clear head for this. You need antivirus software and I reluctantly have to say these days, a firewall. Previously you could probably get away without a firewall, but not any longer, especially if you use Microsoft based software.

Option one would be to have your Internet Service Provider provide both. On the one hand they supposedly have a reputation to keep, on the other how quick they are and how quick they respond to threats, I don't think it has been independently audited.

Option two is to manage it yourself either by purchasing or by free downloads. Most free downloads are cut down versions of the current product. I'm not taking any chances with viruses, so I'm currently protected both on my PC and by my ISP.

Antiviral ware. Some you have to buy, some comes free of charge. How you can tell which is the better I don't know. Computer magazines often do comparisons, read and learn. If you bought an anti virus package last year or 3 years ago, and haven't collected the updates – they're automatic these days – you are not protected.

Firewalls. What is a firewall? It's usually a piece of software that guards your Internet front door. Old ones only stopped intruders. These days you need to stop things going out of the door, as well. (Routers, which work differently, are usually hardware firewalls as well.) They work in various ways which are beyond this article.

Ah, you say, I'm the only person who uses my computer and I know which sites I connect with. WRONG! There are about 65,000 entrances, called ports, to your computer. Stop thinking about your connection being a single piece of wire and imagine a strand of wire made up of thousands of strands, each one able to talk separately to your PC. This is how you can download programs, browse and e-mail all at the same time.

One of the computer magazines recently surveyed firewalls and used freely accessible websites to test a variety of firewalls. You to can try them, just follow the simple instructions:

http://www.pcflank.com

http://www.grc.com

http://www.mynetwatchman/winpopuptester.asp

This last one tests popup advertisements. My system didn't block them, so I use the Google tool bar, which does.

Often, before you add a firewall you are asked to scan you system for viruses, which might be a bit difficult if you are about to install new antivirus software as well. Fear not, it is possible to get the respectable software providers to screen your PC remotely, from the Internet. This can take some time. If you have a lot of files on a big hard drive this might mean not having a cup of tea, but actually going off and eating it. The reason for the pre-installation scan is that the firewall needs to know what is legitimately on your PC and what is not.

Have you backed up your data? I don't mean the programs themselves, but the data you have added. Copying onto floppies can be done, but is hard work if you have a lot of data and is old technology. By that I mean that you might not see new computers with floppy drives on them for much longer. "Burning" onto a CD or a DVD is better, unless you have a twin hard drive system or tape backup, and I don't mean the old audio tapes!

You should have the originals programs. Simply "copying" them isn't much good as the programs need to be properly "installed" so having the original somewhere safe is best. If you take Internet downloads make sure the any new software is compatible with your stored data.

Regular backups also should be being done just in case something happens to your hard drive or it's controller. (I've had two hard disk controllers go in 3 years, fortunately I had time to back them up.) Daily Backups or even automatically is the ideal, but realistically once a week should do unless it's really important or a very big file that you've spent ages on.

Software Updates. For commercial reason suppliers like Microsoft continually improve their programs and iron out the glitches that have come to light. These are available free of charge of the Internet. Increasingly however, Microsoft have become aware of major security problems with both Internet Explorer and their other programs like Outlook, the Office suite of programs and MediaPlayer. Please collect these patches.

And Finally. Set yourself a deadline for doing all this. Say a week or two for research and then all purchases as soon as possible afterwards. Then spend an evening loading the software and sorting your files out. Then you will be a safe and secure member of the Internet, where nasty things happen to people who don't take precautions.

 

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