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Best Ways to Protect Your Digital Life

by Mark Gray
on September 6
with Comments Off

Best Ways to Protect Your Digital Life

With technology advancing every year, most of us spend significant parts of our lives in the digital realm. We communicate, bank, shop, get news, do research, play games and do all sorts of other things online, and most of us can’t imagine life without digital devices and the Internet anymore. As much as it is convenient, being online opens more ways for the bad guys to do us harm. The threats are real – cyber crooks can steal our credit card and bank account info, steal our identity, infect our computers, get ahold of personal details for real-life robberies, use our email accounts for spamming others and so on. Protect yourself by following the advice below.

It’s good if you are scared enough of digital attacks to start doing something about it, but fear alone won’t get you very far. It is more important to have information that can help you build a strong defense against the real threats of the virtual world. And remember, there is no such thing as being overly vigilant, since every year the enemy is becoming more sophisticated and less picky about whom it targets.

Desktop PC Protection

Having a good antivirus program installed and active is an unarguably important first step, but nowadays it isn’t always enough. What else can you do to protect the epicenter of your digital life?

Install OS updates

First, you need to keep your operating system up to date. Hackers constantly look for ways to crack the OS defenses and OS manufacturers constantly patch security holes and release updates containing these patches. Not installing such updates is like leaving doors to your home open in hopes that thieves will never come to your neighborhood.

Move on from XP

Speaking of operating systems, if you are still using Windows XP, you are at a higher risk of getting an infection, since this OS is less secure than its successors. With about a quarter of all computers in the world still running XP, it is no wonder this operating system remains a prime target for hackers. If you don’t feel comfortable switching to Windows 8, consider using Windows 7 for a more secure environment.

Update third-party apps

Another common entry point for malware is third party applications that have security problems. Most serious software publishers will keep an eye out for such issues and produce patches as soon as a problem is discovered. However, unless the program is set to automatically check for and install updates, the newly released patch may never make it to your PC. It would be hard to manually check all your installed software for available updates, so you may want to use a program that does that automatically for you. Also make it a point to set every program you install to automatically check for updates, if such an option is offered in the program settings.

Know your weak points

When a virus does make it to your PC, the investigation almost always uncovers that these programs provided the entry point: Flash, Acrobat/Reader, QuickTime, Java, and JavaScript. It would be easy to recommend just not using these applications, but unfortunately this isn’t always possible. Many other software programs, as well as Internet websites require these to operate and display data correctly. If you can’t uninstall these programs, you can at least disable some of their functionality to make your operating environment a little more secure. The first thing you can do is disable the Acrobat Reader, QuickTime and Java plugins in all your web browsers. It can usually be done in browser settings – look for an “Add-ons”, “Plugins” or “Extensions” menu item. Doing this can save you from zero-day malware – the freshly released kind that your antivirus may not have had the time to update its shields for.

To protect your machine from the flash-borne viruses and malware, you may want to install the FlashBlock plugin in your web browsers. This will prevent flash content from displaying on web pages, but will let you click on individual flash items to show them when you know the content is safe.

JavaScript, the most notorious for enabling malware infections, is also the hardest to let go of. Completely disabling JavaScript will break many web sites you might visit and provide for a generally bumpy online experience. However, if you get paranoid, you can tinker with your browser settings and get JavaScript not to run on websites. This will usually mean that whenever a webpage requires JavaScript, you will get a popup or another kind of notification (depending on your web browser) giving you the option to enable JavaScript just for that page.

Go virtual for web browsing

If you want your web browsing sessions to be absolutely secure, the best option is using a virtualized browser or even a virtual machine. There are drawbacks to it, the main one being that you lose your preferences, bookmarks and session history when you have to purge your virtual browser if an infection is detected. If you don’t mind that, the benefits you get by going virtual are huge, since everything you do in a virtual browser or on a virtual machine is contained within that virtual environment and cannot get through to your main system. There are many choices out there, but the most popular virtual machines come from VMWare or from Microsoft itself. You may use the operating system and browser from the virtual machine maker, or get your own and install them on the virtual machine.

Get a verdict before opening files

When you are about to open a file that came from a source you can’t be 100% sure about, or even something sent by a friend that your intuition tells you may not be absolutely clean, do these two things. First, if the time permits, let the file sit on your hard drive for a few days and make sure your antivirus software gets regular virus definition updates in the meantime. The reason for doing this is that if the file happens to contain some zero-day malware, your antivirus will have time to catch up and will be able to detect the malware when you finally attempt to open the file.

The second thing to do, regardless of whether you can leave the file to incubate on your drive, is to have the file checked by more than one antivirus program, since no AV software is guaranteed to be 100% fool-proof. There are online services out there, like virustotal.com, that let you upload files to be scanned by multiple AV programs, which is a great way to ensure your file truly is clean. Just keep in mind that virus makers check their creations on such services too to ensure their malware remains undetected.

Beware of shortened URL’s

You’ve probably seen them many times – URL’s that look like wxyz.ly or the like. They are a convenient way to allow including what otherwise would be an extremely long link in social media posts and email messages. The shortened URL is usually a random set of characters and has no resemblance to the original link, which makes it a very attractive means of disguising malicious website addresses to entice unsuspecting users to click on a tainted link. What can you do about it? There are URL-unshortening services out there, like longurlplease.com, that can show you the true address the link is directing to. Virustotal.com also allows checking shortened links by several URL analysis tools. Even though most URL-shortening services say they check for malware, it never hurts to get a second opinion.

Don’t use your PC as administrator

Most malware requires administrator privileges to run on your PC, and some (not all) may be able to give itself such rights. When you use your PC as an administrator, you pretty much grant these rights to any malicious program that decides to execute on your machine. A good way to prevent (or at least greatly limit) this from happening is to use your PC as a standard user, and definitely make sure you have a standard user account for children or other guest users. In the past, this proved to be helpful in blocking virus attacks.

Consider banking in Linux

Linux is a different and much more secure operating system than Windows. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s got better defenses, but with Windows being the OS of choice on about 90% of PC’s around the world, it is no surprise that most hackers focus their efforts on breaking Windows defenses. Although you may not feel like learning a new OS, there are some versions like Ubuntu that are very easy to figure out for Windows users and provide a more secure environment. You can stick to Windows for everything else, but consider using a Linux Live CD for sensitive tasks like online banking – you just stick the CD in and boot into Linux for your banking session, then reboot into Windows when done.

Prevent damage from guest users

Even when you’ve taken all the measures you could to secure your PC, a teenage nephew can ruin your efforts in one visit filled with gaming and online socializing. The best prevention technique is to have a limited-rights guest account set up on your PC and make sure that your guests always use that account when on your computer. You could even go as far as to set up a separate virtual machine on your PC for any guest users and completely clear guest activity traces after every session.

LAPTOP PROTECTION

All of the above recommendations for desktop PC’s apply to laptops as well, but there is more you need to keep in mind when thinking about securing your laptop. In addition to being hacked into, portable digital devices carry the risk of being stolen, in which case everything that’s stored on the device is fair prey to criminals. The best way to prevent the shock and pain of having your laptop along with everything that’s on it lost for good is to use a special lock that secures your laptop to any immovable object you can find in your office or anywhere else you are using the computer. Most laptops nowadays are equipped with a special slot that accommodates laptop locks – look for a little hole on the side that has a padlock symbol next to it. Kensington is the most recognized brand when laptop locks are talked about, but brands like Belkin, Tarqus, Noble Security and Manhattan have their own offerings in this field that are quite good.

There is a lot more you can do to protect your digital life, but we will talk about it in one of our future articles. Start with the above tips and your computers will be much better shielded against the common threats they can be faced with today. And remember, a little paranoia is a good thing when it is related to digital security and makes you take steps to improve your defenses.

Mark Gray is editor-in-chief of SoftwareTested.com. He has worked for a number of big IT industry players during his career, and finally decided to pursue his passion and devote majority of his time and effort to bringing technology and the end user closer together.