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Computer Protection Essentials

Overview

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Computer viruses, Malware, Spyware, Worms and other nasties can damage your system or even steal privileged information such as user names and passwords. With so much online activity today, the consequences of this type of damage or theft can be devastating so computer protection awareness is as important as it has ever been.

Fortunately, there are ways to make it more difficult for would be cyber intruders to target your computer system and it may surprise you to learn that there is no single product or vendor solution that protects your system at every level. As you will see, strong protection includes a combination of many solutions - some of which involve user awareness rather than technology. The following tips should form the basis of any systems online security measures.


Step 1. Up to Date Patch Levels

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The battle between intruders and software makers is always evolving. Hackers look to exploit security lapses in the software that runs computer systems and these security lapses are known as vulnerabilities. As software makers become aware of vulnerabilities in their software they re-code the vulnerable functions in order to prevent the exploitation of that weakness. The updated software that contains blocked vulnerabilities is known as a patch.

Microsoft Windows provides a 'Windows Update' service on its operating systems. Sometimes the updates fix bugs and general software functionality, but sometimes the updates include vulnerability patches. It is very important that Computer Operating Systems are kept up to date with regards to their patch levels. This has the effect of minimizing the number of exploits that exist on your computer system and in turn improving your online security.


Step 2. Active and Updated Virus Scanner

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A computer virus is a piece of software designed to execute malicious code on your computer. Virus protection normally performs two functions. Real-time scanning that is used to detect viruses loaded into the active memory and disk scanning that is used to detect viruses laying dormant in the computer's mass storage system. Virus scanners are a valuable and well known tool in the fight against viruses and work best when used in conjunction with the other techniques described in this article.


Step 3. Active and Updated Adware Scanner

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Adware or advertising supported software is software that plays, displays or downloads advertisements to a computer. Those nasty pop-ups, for example, are generally a product of adware. This group of software also includes spyware which is used to gather and steal information from your computer system. Although most commercial anti-virus systems detect adware and spyware, I have long treated anti-virus and anti-spyware with separate products and I have found that, on occasions, one software package will pick up what the other missed.

If you are getting pop-ups on your computer and your anti-virus is not complaining about an infection you may need to install anti-adware software such as Ad-aware or Anti-Malware. This is an important aspect of computer protection that is sometimes overlooked.

Step 4. Beware Unknown emails

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Firewalls, private networks and other network based preventative measures help to stop intruders on the outside from peering into the network. Much like a one way mirror allows light to pass through one direction but reflects light from the opposite direction. Malicious emails get around this problem by entering the network by legitimate means - an email. Once a user clicks on their email attachment they effectively give the malicious software the authority to perform its deeds effectively bypassing security measures that were configured under the assumption that any hostilities would originate from the outside of the network. User awareness is the best form of prevention for this type of attack. Generally speaking these emails can be identified because they come from unknown senders and have provocative subject headings that entice you to look inside.

Step 5. Active Firewall

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Once strictly the domain of network equipment, firewalls today are applied on network boundaries and personal computers alike. Windows XP and above offer a built in firewall for computers running their operating system. This is especially useful for preventing Worms and other types of self propagating attacks from spreading across a local area network. Network firewalls guard the boundaries between the local networks such as a home or office network and the outside world. A firewall is only as effective as the configuration it carries. The more connections the firewall permits the higher the risk of exposing a vulnerability. It is the age old problem of security versus functionality.

All modern Windows systems including Windows 7 offer built in firewalls that should be active at all times. The only time Windows firewalls may not be required is when a competitor's firewall is installed and active on your computer.

Step 6. Beware Bad Websites

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Even websites can be malicious. Malicious web sites can exploit vulnerabilities in browsers or they can request downloads in the form of ActiveX controls or plugins. Safety on web sites is more about not visiting dodgy sites and certainly not downloading anything that you do not know of or trust. Browser security settings can be increased to safeguard against these attacks but in general user awareness is the best form of protection.