Internet and Computer Security: The Basics by Alex Dunedin
This is an article written for the IT and Biscuits people who attend. The overwhelming theme of requests was to understand how to secure your computer from external attacks and from normal browsing activity on the internet. Internet security can be broken down in various ways. I will be discussing the main points here which you can address without investing in learning some of the deeper aspects. These are the main areas which I will cover:
- Browser security
Sources of Information
If you own a computer then you should know how to do certain basic things – read ‘Zen and the Art of Motocycle maintenance’ by Robert M. Pirsig. There is little point in owning a computer and not learning how to do security and maintenance tasks, as it will always cost you more time, money, lost data and energy in the end. My mother always said to me two things which are relevant here: “a stitch in time saves nine” and “dont be lazy Alexander”… these are sage words of advice to this day.
Also, everyone is different and has different requirements. You will get differing advice from various people according to their preference, experience and skills. I will be talking about my preferences, my experience and sharing my limited skills – treat this as a disclaimer. There is nothing more healthy for you to do than ask lots of people, take notes on what they say, and compare them.
My personal experience and view point is be wary about people who charge to give you advice or who stand to profit from your lack of knowledge. Corporations are commonly bland, homogeneous, unskilled, and self interested in the advice they give out (or at least their employees are trained this way). They often underpay their staff, do not train them in anything but sales patter which drives you towards their latest pitch, and they are motivated – at the end of the day – to make more money than they did yesterday. They can occasionally have an offer which is worthwhile, but only because they have bought so much stock that the price per unit comes down. In software and set up terms, they are usually black holes of information – large and impersonal.
Small independent businesses are – depending on who you connect with – good places to check and compare the information and services they offer. Because they are local and embedded in the community, they are often owners of the business who have some personal link with the population. Thus they build relationships, and the dynamic of reciprocity is much more likely to be found there – it is nice to be nice, you help me today, I help you tomorrow kind of thing. They will often be able to do you favours, but also remember that they need to put food on their tables too – so do not be expecting cost price or free help all the time. Remember it is a stable reciprocal relationship which you want to find. Steer clear of mercenaries, and support the nice, knowledgeable, community minded shop.
I personally favour Edinburgh Computer Repairs on Melville Terrace in Edinburgh. Graeme Sturrock is a very community minded man, who loves to fix things and help people. He advises where you can do things cheaper, and gives an honest appraisal when I need it. He has enabled Ragged University by providing free computers, and also given more competitive prices than other companies (particularly large companies). He has time for people and will answer your questions if he can – nice guy !
In particular, he saves things from going to land fill which makes his a sustainable business. Computers can be fixed the majority of times, and the culture of built in redundancy is destroying our planet. If you have old computers you want rid of give them to him or to Pass It On (http://www.passitoncomputers.co.uk/) a local charity which arranges computers for people in need.
A great source of knowledge is the beloved amateur – appreciate those teenagers. This word should not be maligned, as it takes its linguistic root from to love. The person who loves the subject quite often invests more time in it than others. If you get the chance to pick the brains of someone who loves doing their computing, do so; try and keep your questions focused, and invest in the subject as they do. The idea of not putting any effort into learning what you need to know is silly; there are free lunches, however they tend to be handed out from soup kitchens… Again, cross pollinate and compare what you find out with other sources; nobody has all the answers!
Lastly, and most importantly, the best source of knowledge is yourself – if you take time to develop the skill. It can be quite pleasant, like gardening or any other creative thing, learning how to do the mechanics of software and computing yourself. USE THE INTERNET. This is the single most powerful information resource ever available to our species (and no it does not replace books).
If you use Google (my favoured search engine) you can ask it questions and read what people all over the world have written to answer that question; forums are particularly useful because there is no profit motive in what people put down generally. Also, Wikipedia IS a good source of information because it is a form of peer review. You can learn about it from a lecture Jimmy Wales (the founder) gave at Oxford University.
The operating system is the general platform which your computer runs. Different operating systems have different security requirements. Commonly known ones are Windows, Mac, and Linux. Each has pro’s and con’s. You will have to get used to using your own brain to make up your mind on these matters, because it is a bit like deciding on food – each food has it’s own particular pro’s and con’s.
Pro’s: Apple Mac’s come with good security. If you have a Mac you generally can sleep well and not worry about the security side, because it is secure. This is largely because Apple decided to get the product right before they released it; the result was that you don’t have to spend time protecting it from all the nasties.
Con’s: Apple Mac are the ultimate in micro-managers. They cost a load, and lock you into doing everything their way and with their equipment. There is also a certain amount of cultish hipsterness about the whole brand which gets associated with smugness. I don’t like them because of the expense and the fact they lock me out from fully customizing my software.
Pro’s: Windows is the most universal of operating systems; it is the platform you will find the majority of people on, and therefore the majority of public information out there is in reference to Windows. The result is that the bulk of the world’s programmers have been creating programs for Windows which generates much choice for the consumer – particularly in the opensource and freeware range (the software you can get legally for free). It also allows for a great deal of customization.
Con’s: Windows requires security software, largely because it was rushed out onto the market to grab market share like little piggy’s, and it was inherently insecure – and still is. The result is that you have to spend time shoring up security and maintaining your system. Windows costs, but not as much as Mac. On the security side you will be thinking about antivirus, antispyware/antimalware, and firewall – of which this article is mainly written about.
Pro’s: Linux is entirely free and developed as open source. It is also secure, unlike Windows, so you dont have to worry about security software. Linux comes in various shapes and sizes, so if you want to use a very old machine and save it from the rubbish dump – use Linux Puppy; if you want something a bit more jazzy, then go for Linux Mint – which is a bit like Windows (except without the security problems). Linux also comes with an inbuilt software/application installer that will generally have all the software you will need for free.
Con’s: Sometimes you will need to learn how to do something in a bit more of a technical way than a ‘click and install’ process. Not all programs are compatable with Linux operating systems – but most can be using a compatibiility program called WINE. If you only use your computer for internet, video and basic stuff, then Linux is worth thinking about. Lastly, sometimes you really do need to read the manual to understand how to do stuff at times..
The rest of this article will be specifically looking at Windows operating systems and what you have to do – or at least what I do – to secure the computers I work on. The expression “It is what it is” holds meaning here. There is no one size fits all, and you will have to work towards finding what you want, for the amount of time and money you have spare. Bottom line, no bank is ultimately secure, but truth is that banks rarely get robbed; houses relatively rarely get broken into; and wallets uncommonly get pickpocketed…
If something is super precious to you – that pending patent information which you hold as critical to all things in your life, dont hold it on a computer which is connected to the internet. The most reliable way of keeping something secure is not to have the computer on the internet… however you will still need security software if you use microsoft.
What version of Windows ?
This is an interesting issue as Microsoft keeps on releasing versions of Windows and then decommissioning them. The most popular – and arguably the most stable – version of Windows was Windows XP. Windows XP is now defunct, so if you still have it on your computer, then consider updating to a newer version. Microsoft no longer release security fixes for it, therefore it becomes more and more vulnerable without this attention to the security loopholes which arise.
This goes for any version of Windows which does not get updates from Microsoft. If it is no longer maintained with updates, then it is probably best to be abandoned for something which is. This is good advice for mostly any software – with a few exceptions. If there is not the maintenance being put in, slowly whatever you are producing will fall out of compatibility with the rest of the software world and you run the risk of being marooned in the equivalent of an evolutionary cul-de-sac. Simply put, one day all that hard work you have put in will not be able to be read by other computers – like Aramaic or Ancient Greek.
The last stable and reasonable version of Windows which I am aware of is Windows 7. I have heard of Windows 8 being problematic on various fronts, and it is moving towards locking you out of the engine room where you can normally customize so much of your environment. This is my personal preference – read what people are saying; ask people what they use; compare, compare, compare…
Your Firewall is your shield against any malicious attack from the world wide web. Think of it like the wall, moat and portcullis around your own personal castle. With a Firewall, you can choose what gets access to your computer, and what does not. In the Firewall, a number of rules are created which allow various programs – like your antivirus – to update, or to connect with the internet – such as your browser.
The internal firewall of Windows is – on the whole – competent. That said, should you want greater control and geek level security, you can use a Firewall which you install yourself like Comodo Firewall, or Zone Alarm. These are well known and have lots of customizable options for controlling the traffic on your computer, but beware – if you randomly mess with settings without learning about them, you could cause problems. KEY RULE: RTFM – READ THE F****** MANUAL
Now where I start with on Antivirus software is that the worst thing you can have on your computer – barring no antivirus at all – is McAfee or Norton. After talking with a great number of people, and discovering that many of the computer repair shops get much of their business from these bloated, costly, unreliable programs, I made a covenant with myself to avoid having these on my computers.
After hearing about how John McAfee – the original software designer and owner of McAfee (no longer) – I managed to put on a screen behind me at a public event, a video he had made denouncing the McAfee Antivirus. I knew from the press that he had spent a lot of money creating a spoof video basically taking the total mick out of his previously owned software company. I knew from the press that he got in trouble for doing this, as the company lost lots of money. What I was not quite aware of was the content of the video playing behind me which used strong language and objectified women in it… more fool me for not looking before I leapt.
Long story short, is that these are the two McDonald’s options for Antiviruses. They get licensed and stuck on computers rolling out of factories from here to Timbuktu and beyond. But remember, they are to be regarded as a McDonalds is to a handmade hamburger – or falafel burger in my case. I dont regard McDonalds as food – I see it more as an assault on the body, wallet and earth’s resources. Thus I see McAfee and Norton Antiviruses in an equivalence – essentially preying on people who lack knowledge.
They take up more computing resources than they need to, they cost a silly amount of money for something which you can get a better piece of software for free, they mess up the efficient running of the computer, and they update at the worst possible times.
What Antivirus Software Do I recommend ?
I would say that Avast is the best option for home use. AVG is also available, and I used it for a long time, but as I use older computers, I chose Avast as it uses less resources. When I say “use less resources”, I mean that you have to think of your computer as having only so much power to do things. Just like a truck can only carry so much weight, and the more weight a truck carries, the slower it can go, and the more sluggish it manoeuvres; your computer only has so much storage space and power to compute.
This is why when thinking about what software to use, you should try and pick the most efficiently coded. This means that they tend to be smaller programs, taking up less space on your hard drive and running less processes. Thinking minimalistic is a good way to go if you want your computers to run well.
Antivirus software is essential kit on a Windows installation, and you should run it once a week – yes ! Once a week – if you dont want any problems. Viruses can get onto your computer from various sources, from programs which you have installed, to USB keys which have been plugged into your computer, to files which you have opened. Think of them like mice in your pantry. They get in, eat all your food, crap in the Alpen, and multiply.
Many viruses are not very destructive, they just might be harvesting your information and pumping it back to an illegitimate data collector. Some will destroy your whole computer leaving your photos and essays in bits of bytes. Often they will just slow your computer down and force you to get your computer wiped and reloaded because it has become unusable.
Right, to get you understanding what spyware and malware is, the metaphor I would use is something like weeds in your garden. These are programs that find their way in, collect information about you, and get you to visit various pages on the internet to buy stuff – i.e. hijack your browser.
There are two programs I use to clean a computer, and prevent it happening; Spybot Search and Destroy and Malwarebytes Antimalware. Spybot Search and Destroy is an old favourite of many people, and it is free. You are encouraged to donate to it because it is free. It will search your whole computer for tracking cookies, rootkits, and spyware, but it will also ‘immunize your browser’ with killbits.
Let me explain – tracking cookies, rootkits and spyware are all things you dont want on your computer; they are not fatal, but they slow your computer down, steal your information and redirect you to internet pages you did not set out to find. Immunizing your browser with ‘killbits’ is a simple way of preventing spyware getting onto your computer in the first place. A killbit is something that tells the spyware that it is already installed on your computer when it comes along – thus the spyware, thinking that it is already on your system, does not install itself. Another piece of software which provides killbits for browsers is called Spyware Blaster. It is compatiable with Spyware Search and Destroy, and there is a free version.
Malwarebytes Antimalware is a program which searches for and strips out malware and spyware. All in all it is a powerful tool which deals with most known baddies which get on your computer. Long story short, if your computer is running slow, run this bad boy and get rid of anything which it flags up. This should sort out most of your problems.
I personally dont use Microsoft Internet Explorer, I am not convinced that it gives me the customisability which I seek in a browser or that it is inherently secure – because Microsoft itself has a habit of launching products that are speedily designed and lacking security so to win market share. Generally my heart is won by open source communities. This means that the software is developed by an open community and that the code is open for everyone to inspect. The result is that often there is better testing of the product and more loopholes are flagged up. It is also free of the commercial pressures which come from money grubbing and over ambitious launch just to get a jump on the competition.
Thus, in the category of browsers, my pick is Mozilla Firefox because of its high level of customizability, its being developed by an open source community, and the fact that it is free. There are a number of good browsers out there, I am told, such as Google Chrome, Opera, etc. The one I will be recommending is Firefox.
The chief reason I recommend Firefox is for the ability to install ‘addons‘ into your browser which block certain elements known as java script and tracking cookies. Now these are not intrinsically bad, but they can be the vehicles for spyware and other nasties.
If you install Firefox, you can go to the Tools section on the menu (at the top of the page) and select Options. This will bring up options which you can select like Privacy settings – from here I can “Tell sites that I do not want to be tracked”, I can select “Always use private browsing mode” and the option to “Accept third party cookies Never”. I see Privacy as a function of Security on the web.
Essentially, with the layers of protection which you have with the above software (Avast firewall, Spybot Search and Destroy killbits and realtime monitor, Spywareblaster Killbits) the added, in-browser security of NoScript provides you with good security.
NoScript, so all the addons in firefox, is free and a part of the open source community. There are many browser addons which you can install which provide different functionality and security aspects. I will let you explore and decide what you like according to the user reviews. NoScript Security Suite by Giorgio Maone claims to be the best security you can get in a web browser, protecting you against XSS and Clickjacking attacks. With over 2,000,000 users, it is a strong contender.
Browser Tool Bars
Essentially I will ask you why you want to even bother. These are usually spyware sending user data back to its company so it can sell on your consumer habits. They only slow down your websurfing experience by causing drag. As a rule, they dont add any functionality which your browser does not already have. Get rid of them unless you are compelled to have these bells and whistles, bowties and silly hats stuck on.
Thank you for reading; if you have any questions, get in touch, also if you have an alternative view of software and want to write about it, please do. This is my version of things, and should be as questioned as anything else