Thursday, 3 February 2011

Safe browsing - it's like safe sex really...

As I don my White Coat for the second part of this subject, I liken myself to a sexual health worker (the white coat has a multitude of uses), trying to prevent the spread of STDs in a sexually permissive teenage society - it doesn't matter how many times you repeat the "Safe Browsing" message - some are still going to ignore you. However, we must try, so bend over dear reader...

Safe browsing of the Internet relies on several things:
  • Keep your browser up to date
  • Keep your computer up to date
  • Consider a different browser
  • Keep your anti-virus up to date
  • Use a firewall
  • Configure your browser properly
  • Configure your computer properly
  • Show restraint
The first two are no-brainers. Always try and keep your computer up to date with the latest patches, and do the same with your browser. For Windows, this usually means running Windows Update either automatically, or frequently. I'm not kidding when I say that new flaws in Windows are being found every day - for goodness sake, Microsoft even have an official day of the month - Patch Tuesday - where they release fixes for discovered vulnerabilities.

Internet Explorer is not the only browser out there. Many years ago, when Windows (and the Internet) were young, a browser software battle was fought, and Internet Explorer was the winner - not because it was the best, but because it was bundled with Windows, and because Windows had the biggest market share of computer operating systems. The problem however, is that Microsoft, in their infinite wisdom, choose to tie in the browser with the operating system, to the point where it had a dangerously high level of access to your computer - a situation that still exists. If you want safer browsing, one of the best ways is to change your browser to another, and for that, I recommend Mozilla Firefox. Not only is it quick, it is (by definition) safer (it's not tied to the operating system), and there are add-ons that actually make it even safer - it's NoScript add on for example, lets you control which scripts are allowed to run on your browser (stopping unallowed scripts is one of the best preventative measures for safe browsing I have ever seen).

Antivirus is not an option anymore - it's a requirement for Windows, to the point where Windows itself will let you know if you have no antivirus present (look out for a red circle with a cross in your system tray - dead give away). You don't have to spend a fortune though - most new computers come with Norton or McAfee pre-installed, which does cost, but you can uninstall these and use a free antivirus solution, such as AVG or Avast.

Using a firewall is a must. For those of you who don't know, a firewall protects your computer from being attacked directly by other computers. If you use a Router to access the Internet, rather than a ADSL modem, chances are you are already behind a firewall - check your router documentation. If not, it's a good idea to use at least the built in Windows Firewall, or if not, a separate solution like ZoneAlarm

Configuring your browser properly is just a case of making sure it can't do anything you don't want it too. That means...
  • Not allowing pop-up windows
  • Not installing unnecessary browser add-ons (such as search toolbars)
  • Making sure the security options are not too lax
Most browsers these days have default settings that are quite good - again, look into the documentation for your browser for help if you think you may be at risk.

The hardest thing though to implement, is the last - showing restraint. Simply put, it means this...
  • Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.
This is rule of thumb #2, and it's a doozy. In short, as a user, you can go anywhere you want, install anything you want - but should you? That new file-sharing bit torrent client looks great... but do I really need it? What if it contains a virus? Ooh, Dave in accounts says that new site - "latinosheepsh*" is fab - but what if it's a malicious website (come to think of it, what is Dave thinking about)... You get the idea. In the war against the Internet sharks, common sense is your greatest weapon.

In part 3, we'll discuss what to do if you think you have a trojan/virus. For now, I'm off for a scrub and hosedown...

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