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5 Essential Steps to Keep Your Computer Safe

by on May 14, 2013
in Computers and Software, Computers & Accessories, Software & Games, Computer Safety & Support, Tips & How-Tos, Tech 101 :: 13 comments

Computers house so much of our personal data that it's essential to set up protective measures in case of cyber attack or mechanical failure. These five must-do steps dramatically increase the odds your computer (and your privacy) will remain safe from the latest online criminal activity and let you salvage your most important files if your computer becomes irretrievably infected.

1. Updates are not optional

Updating the software on your system, including the operating system, is an absolute necessity. If you don’t download new versions of programs like Adobe Flash, your computer is more susceptible to malware. Updates to your Windows or Mac operating system help address new threats.

To keep your Windows system up to date, you can use Windows Update to make sure you’re getting the necessary adjustments. This is usually set to update automatically, but here's how can check to make sure.

In Windows 7, click the Start button, type "windows update" into the search box. Click on Windows Update in the results (it will be under the Program section of the results.) Click on "Change Settings" in the Windows Update window that pops up and then check to see that the Install Updates Automatically option has been selected under Important Updates section. Then choose OK to save your changes.

In Windows 8, open the Search charm, enter "turn automatic updating on or off" and then click Settings. 

Microsoft issues new updates every second Tuesday of the month.

Mac OS X checks automatically for updates weekly if it has an internet connection. If it finds updates, will it use a pop up window listing the changes and asking you if you are ready to install them (which often requires a computer restart).

2. Uninstall Java

Java is a program that websites used to incorporate into their systems, but is rarely used now. Continuous security holes allowing malware to infect computers through Java makes it no longer safe to leave it on your system unless you absolutely need it. Even the Department of Homeland Security has recommended removing Java from your computer or, at least, disabling it n your browser.

We recently posted a step-by-step guide to identifying if your system has Java installed and what you need to do to remove or disable it. We cannot stress enough the importance of uninstalling Java for the health and security of your computer.

3. Install malware protection

Trojans, viruses, keyloggers, zombie code, spyware, adware and more are continuously finding new ways to make it onto your PC. But many people are infected by malware that has been around for years, simply because they don't have decent security software installed.

Norton Internet Security 2013 is a solid malware protector, especially adept at removing all sorts of things that shouldn't be on your system. If you don't want to spend any money, there are very good free antivirus programs available , like AVG Anti-Virus Free 2013.

Macs are not safe from these kinds of attacks either. A recent study judged the effectiveness of many top security software programs for the Mac against a virus that made the rounds on the Apple computer. Check out the results for a listing of recommended security programs for your Mac. 

4. Use strong passwords

Many of us just use one or two passwords for all the sites we visit. Who can keep track of a couple dozen unique passwords anyway? But if one of those sites gets hacked and they weren't using proper encryption techniques (as happended with the LinkedIn and eHarmony hack in 2012), criminals will now have your password for Amazon, eBay, PayPal, or even your online bank.

There is a simple three-step solution: 1) Make strong passwords. 2) Use different passwords for each site. 3) Use a password management system to track them all.

A strong password usually should have at least 8 characters (the longer the better), with a mixture of upper and lower-case letters, numbers and, if the site or service allows, special characters, such as “!,” “#” and “?.” But it should also be something you can easily remember. And that conflict has led too many people to use common passwords that are easy to hack.

The good news is that recent studies have shown password length may be more important than whether you're using fancy characters. So the password "IgrewupinBrooklyn" may actually be incredibly difficult to crack. Not sure if your password is strong enough? Here's how to check your password strength.

Password management systems come in many forms. There's one built into the Mozilla Firefox browser and many Internet security programs come with that feature as well (such as Norton's Internet Security 2013 recommended above.) 1Password ($49.95 at agilewebsolutions.com) is a popular stand alone program that works across many of your devices including computers, tablets and smartphones.

Also, consider lying when creating password security questions. Public information that can be Googled (the street you grew up on, your grandmother's maiden name, etc.) makes you an easy target for hackers trying to get your password.

5. Back it up

When your system is infected beyond repair or compromised and wiped, you need to have a backup of your critical documents so they're not lost for ever.. Your two major back up solutions are online storage and external hard drives.

Online storage

The major cloud-based storage services offer a few gigabytes for free with a cost to get access to more. If you back up thousands of large files, like photos and videos, you may have to pay a monthly fee. Cloud-based storage is perfect for saving important can't-lose documents and the best of your photos. Backing up is as simple as signing up for one of the services and then putting your documents into a special folder on your desktop that will sync to your cloud storage or marking which folders on your hard drive you want to sync.

You can access your files from anywhere with a computer, tablet or phone and an Internet connection. Many also let you sync files between devices, so it's like having a cloud-based storage and external hard drive storage at the same time.

Most of the cloud-based storage services provide encryption of files while they transfer from your computer to their servers, but the files will usually be stored unencrypted on the server. If you want an extra level of privacy protection, consider a program that encrypts files before uploading them.

External hard drive backup

The external hard drive option is better for instant access to very large files or if you have tons of files and don't want to pay a monthly fee (you can get a 500GB WD hard drive on Amazon for around $60). But if a fire, flood or theft takes out your home computer, it will likely destroy your external hard drive, as well. So we always recommend using a backup drive in conjunction with cloud-based storage for your most important files.

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Discussion loading

LastPass (free or $12/year) for storing passwords works great!

From Diane Davis Lipka on May 14, 2013 :: 10:41 am

I have been using this for keeping my passwords safe and accessible.  They can even generate passwords for you.

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Passwords

From Ian on May 16, 2013 :: 1:07 am

Can anyone explain to me why I should change any of my passwords?  If a password has not been discovered, why would changing it to another, add to my security?
(If I hide my money in a drawer and no one has found it, why would it be safer if I move it to another drawer?)

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Still a good idea

From Josh Kirschner on May 16, 2013 :: 8:17 am

If you are using insecure passwords or sharing passwords across multiple sites, it’s still a wise idea to change your passwords, even if they have been safe so far. Here’s why:
1) It only takes one security breach at a site with poor password security to expose your password. We saw this with LinkedIn, eHarmony and numerous other examples over the last few years. If you’re sharing that password across multiple other sites (especially email or banking), you’re now vulnerable.
2) Hackers are getting better at decoding poorly encrypted passwords, but complex passwords are still much harder to decode.
3) If you’re using a password on the “common password” list, you’re vulnerable to brute force attacks.
4) If you accidently fall for a phishing scam and reveal your username and password for one site, you won’t have compromised yourself on other sites.

Just because hiding your money in a drawer has been safe so far, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t move it to a bank.

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Java still needed sometimes

From Carl on June 01, 2013 :: 8:32 pm

I found out the hard way that macros and some other functions in Open Office require Java to be installed. How do you disable it for Chrome?

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See link above

From Josh Kirschner on June 02, 2013 :: 11:25 pm

Instructions for disabling in Chrome are in our step-by-step guide to removing Java which is linked to in the story above.

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Uninstall Java and Department of Homeland Security

From Roger Hass on June 02, 2013 :: 1:21 am

You both have your heads stuck in a hole in the sand.
Homeland Security scare is a bit outdated as is your comment in item 2.

Wake up folks you have a lot of catching up to do.

Java is used world wide and on at least 3.5 billion devices connected in one way or another to the internet.

Your comment among others, ” .... but is rarely used now.” answer this, of the 100’s of million websites, how many do not use java ?

Oracle updated and fixed the small security hole of which only a handful of people knew about, within hours of its report, and the last 4 and current version of java “Version 7 Update 21” do not suffer from this outdated report.

Update your Java and continue using Java’s latest version and do not uninstall it !! - is my recommendation !!

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We beg to differ

From Josh Kirschner on June 02, 2013 :: 11:24 pm

According to W3Techs, only .2% of websites use Java on the client side (http://w3techs.com/technologies/details/cp-javaruntime/all/all). And PC PitStop reports more than 70% of the PCs they see don’t have Java installed at all. So actual statistics strongly show that consumer usage of Java is rare. Worse, though is that the PC Pitstop statistics also show that only 16% of PC users who had Java installed had the most recent version of Java. So most were leaving themselves open to security exploits.

You are incorrect about the issue being a small security hole. The Homeland Security-related warning came about after it was reported that exploit kits were already operating in the wild. The version of Java at the time this was reported in January was Version 7 Update 10. Within a five month period, Oracle is now up to Version 7 Update 21, almost all the updated related to security issues. And this is issue is just one in a string of Java security flaws that have come to light.

Given the ongoing risks and the very limited necessity, our recommendation stands that users should uninstall Java unless they specifically need it for a web site.

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To each his own - and whichever statistics you follow out of the gluttonised quagmire for statistics

From Roger Hass on June 03, 2013 :: 1:29 am

So we get our statistics from different sources and obviously come to different conclusions.

Start here - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Java_(software_platform)
Then go here,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JavaScript
Then go here,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Java_(programming_language)

There is actually some more detail on this on the Java website:

      1.1 billion desktops run Java
      930 million Java Runtime Environment downloads each year
      3 billion mobile phones run Java
      31 times more Java phones ship every year than Apple and Android combined
      100% of all Blu-ray players run Java
      1.4 billion Java Cards are manufactured each year
      Java powers set-top boxes, printers, Web cams, games, car navigation systems, lottery terminals, medical devices, parking payment stations, and more.

Interesting to say the least. http://www.java.com/en/about/

Popular Sites that use Java
Programming languages used in most popular websites - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Programming_languages_used_in_most_popular_websites

Google
Facebook
Gmail
Ebay
Twitter
MSN
Yahoo
PayPal

Other Information,
JavaScript is used by 88.7% of all the websites.
Google Libraries API is used by 14.7% of all the websites, that is a JavaScript content delivery network market share of 91.3%.
Source - W3Techs - World Wide Web Technology Surveys

And the Saga goes on, and on, and on !!

So in conclusion, it all depends which side of the Java argument you are on.

At first, you must know that ‘’ Java ‘’ from http://www.java.com is different of : JavaScript !... JavaScript is on all the computers, either you activate it, or not !
Java from java.com is an application ...
Personally I have Java installed on my computer and I also activated JavaScript ... 100%

Regards
Roger H.
(Tech since 1979 and used Java since 1995)

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You're mixing apples and oranges

From Josh Kirschner on June 03, 2013 :: 7:34 am

The advice we’re providing is that users should remove Java from their PCs, not that Java should be eliminated as a coding language.

The stats you provide for Java usage may be accurate, but they have nothing to do with PC use. Why should you keep Java on your PC because your Blu-ray player uses Java? The two have nothing to do with each other.

Similarly with your own link to Wikipedia for sites that use Java, all of those sites use Java on the back-end for coding. Zero use it on the front-end, which is what matters for site visitors. Visitors to Google, Facebook, Gmail, Ebay, etc. do NOT need Java.

Yes, Javascript is a completely different animal from Java. We explain that in our longer step-by-step guide to removing Java.

In summary, the stats you provide do not in any way change our advice to uninstall or deactivate Java from your PC unless you use specific applications or sites that require it (which for most users will be rare).

Best,
Josh

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1.1 billion desktops run Java

From Roger Hass on June 03, 2013 :: 10:10 am

So, 1.1 billion desktops run Java, are not PC’s or computers ?

BTW, I baked the Apples and ate the Oranges.

Don’t bother with a reply to the Apples and Oranges, and have a few Bananas they are healthy for you so I am told ☺☺☺.

Then again I don’t believe everything I am told by Homeland Security or an individual working for such a group or anyone else hoping on a bandwagon.

So why after so many years of Java usage do we suddenly detect a bug in a couple of versions, which have been fixed, do some persist in wanting to kill Java off ?

What is the real motive behind behind their reasons ?
Who detected the security hole in the first place, and what was his intention, i.e. to fix the security breach or kill Java ?
Mybe make a name for himself or enhance his reputation ?
Just a couple of questions to keep this interesting.

When we find bugs, we fix them and don’t use the overkill by removing or uninstalling the program which contained the bug when we can fix it, unless the bug cannot be fixed !

Regards
Roger H.

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Not exactly....

From Josh Kirschner on June 03, 2013 :: 6:15 pm

Hi, Roger. I appreciate the discussion.

You’re quoting Oracle’s marketing literature for the 1.1 billion and it’s not clear what that number represents. It probably refers to the fact that 1.1 billion PCs (Windows and Macs) have had Java installed on them.

However, Java was baked into all Windows XP releases by Microsoft. And, later, Sun struck deals with HP and Dell to include Java on all new PCs sold. So while Java may have historically been installed on 1.1 billion PCs, that’s very different than “running” on 1.1 billion PCs. Any more than we would claim that RealPlayer is being “run” on XX million PCs because it was included as bloatware by OEMs.

I don’t think the motivations of those who find the holes are really relevant. The hole was confirmed by multiple independent parties, was being actively exploited and was one of a long series of Java exploits discovered over the years. In fact, Java is currently on Version 7 Update 21 only 5 months after the discovery of the hole in Update 10. All of the interim releases were to fix security flaws.

Best,
Josh

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Web sites rarely use Java?

From LarryF58 on June 03, 2013 :: 3:48 pm

What about percentage of users vs. the percentage of web sites?

One little statistic I just looked up: 251 *million* Facebook users play games on the site. Guess which programming language they use to provide cross-OS compatibility? Or MSN Games, or Big Fish Games, or any *other* online game site you might care to mention?

The fact that not many web sites use Java does not in any way reflect the number of users who visit those sites. It might be better to say that web sites that do not provide services to millions of users daily rarely use Java.

You think Java is evil? Create a cross-browser programming language that works as well or better before you start telling me I need to remove Java’s front end from my computers. Personally, I happen to like going to my favorite web sites and not being told I can’t play the games or use the features there because Java isn’t enabled.

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Those stats are hard to come by...

From Josh Kirschner on June 03, 2013 :: 6:02 pm

I haven’t been able to find any stats on percentage of Java users, but we can make some inferences. PC Pitstop reports less than 30% of the PCs they see have Java installed. Since many PCs came with Java preinstalled, we can assume that the actual percentage of Java users is something well below 30%.

The 251 million number for Facebook games is, unfortunately, not very helpful. I tested the eight top Facebook games (according to USA Today) and none of the eight use Java.

In any case, we never said that everyone should remove Java (and we certainly never called it “evil”). What we said was that everyone who doesn’t need Java should uninstall it. If you’re a Minecraft fanatic, by all means, keep Java. But be aware of the risks and make sure you keep it updated.

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