Fear and Loathing on the Information Superhighway

By David Pankhurst

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I clicked on a picture recently - and my computer immediately told me I was under a virus attack.

Welcome to 2011, and the world of high security on the Internet. Whoever you are, someone out there wants what you have: to take over your computer, to hack into your bank account, or to trash your hard drive. So, what can you do to avoid a loss to cyber crime?

Why Me?

Nothing personal, but that hacker likely doesn't know or care about you - he's after your computer and what's on it.

For instance, stored passwords unlock bank accounts, or provide access to sites they can benefit from (such as logging into your Facebook account and sending all your friends naughty ads). Or it's the computer they want: using a program they put on it, it becomes a "zombie," obeying a master far, far away, yet seemingly working like normal. These zombie computers are then leased out in groups for malicious uses, like Denial Of Service (DOS) attacks, or sending thousands of spam emails.

Steps to Safety

So, they want your computer - what can you do? Here are a few tips:

  • Use a virus program. While a virus program running on your computer can sometimes be an annoyance, being infected is far, far worse. Popular free programs include AVG Free and Avast! Free Antivirus. Be sure to run a system scan as soon as you install it, to check if you're already infected.
  • Watch your connections. Your computer is out there on the Internet constantly, and it has visible doorways, called ports, through which data passes. These ports often do nothing, but under certain circumstances, malicious programs can open some. One way to minimize the risk is to buy a device called a hardware router, which hides those ports from casual detection on the Internet.
  • Update regularly. Programs are tremendously complicated beasties, and always have bugs; bugs that occasionally can open up access to your computer. For this reason, you must regularly update your programs to the latest versions, especially those connecting to the Internet, like your browser, video and audio players, common utilities like Acrobat and Flash, as well as all operating system patches.
  • Use a firewall. A hardware router keeps malicious programs out; keeping them in is the job of a firewall. How can they get in? Broken programs that are exploited by hackers, or accidentally downloading a malicious program are two ways. A firewall forces all programs to ask for permission before going out on the Internet, giving you warning if something is amiss. Microsoft comes with Windows Firewall built in, which should be turned on for protection unless you have another firewall program active.
  • Check for rootkits. Rootkits are the Ebola or HIV of the virus world - their goal is to dig into your operating system so deep they can't be detected or removed. Sophos Anti-Rootkit is one program that can help you locate and remove them, but the best defence is to never be infected, or to completely reinstall your operating system if you have been.
  • Be wary about websites and email. In theory, all emails and websites are safe once you've got your system set up and protected. However, new computer attacks, called "exploits," happen regularly, so if your Internet browser acts funny on a website, shut it down immediately. And with email, avoid clicking on any email or attachment link if possible; use bookmarks instead, or type the address directly into the browser.
  • Avoid being a victim of "social engineering." This fancy term simply means people conning people. If someone asks you for a password or any personal information, don't give it to him or her. Don't write passwords down, and avoid using the same password on every site you visit. Also, never use an easy to guess password, such as birthdates, pet or family names, favourite TV character, and so on.


Internet security is a balancing act between usability and safety. However, by exercising a little care and caution, you can avoid opening your computer up to the world, and inviting criminals to turn your home on the Internet into a doorway for crime. After all, zombies belong in films and TV - not on your computer!



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