Fact Sheet 36:
Securing Your Computer to Maintain Your Privacy
Send to Printer
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
2. Choosing Your Operating System and Software
3. Using Firewalls, Anti-virus Programs, and Anti-malware Programs
4. Using Your Computer Safely
5. Using Wireless Connections (Wi-Fi)
6. Safely Disposing of Your Computer
7. Additional Resources
Securing your computer is essential to protecting your privacy, reducing the risk of identity theft, and preventing hackers from taking over your computer. Unfortunately, maintaining the security of your computer can be challenging. Hackers often seem to be one step ahead of even those computer users who are following the best security practices.
Maintaining your privacy requires you to take a multi-pronged approach. It involves protecting your sensitive information by preventing, detecting, and responding to a wide variety of attacks. There are many potential risks to your computer. Some are more serious than others. Among these dangers are:
· Viruses corrupting your entire system
· Someone breaking into your system and altering files
· A hacker using your computer to attack others
· Someone stealing your computer and accessing your personal information
There's no guarantee that even with the best precautions some of these things won't happen. However, you can take steps to minimize the risks to your computer and your sensitive information. Ultimately, the security of your computer is dependent upon you.
Your operating system. An operating system is the main program on a computer. It performs a variety of functions, including determining what types of software you can install, coordinating the applications running on the computer at any given time, and allowing your software applications (web browsers, word processors, and email clients) to operate. When you buy a computer, you are usually also choosing an operating system. Manufacturers typically ship computers with a particular operating system. Most PCs ship with the latest version of the Windows operating system. Apple computers use the Macintosh operating system.
Windows operating systems traditionally have been targeted more often than other operating systems. This may be due to the larger base of Windows installations, which makes it a more attractive target. Indeed, Macintosh computers historically have been subject to far fewer attacks than Windows computers. However, Apple products are definitely not immune to security flaws. As Apple’s market share increases, the odds of malware being written for Apple products also increases.
One of the most contentious issues among computer security professionals may be the answer to the question “Which operating system is the most secure?” The general consensus among security researchers is that there's nothing about Apple’s Macintosh operating system that makes it inherently more secure than Windows. You can read an interesting article containing quotes from 32 computer security experts debating this issue at http://news.cnet.com/8301-27080_3-10444561-245.html. In fact, the only truly secure operating system is one that has absolutely no contact with the outside world.
Some computer security professionals consider Linux and other lesser known operating systems to be the most secure, primarily because they tend not to be targeted. For those interested in trying out the Linux operating system, many people recommend Ubuntu, a free, open-source Linux distribution available at www.ubuntu.com/.
No matter which operating system you use, it's important that you update it regularly. Windows operating systems are typically updated at least monthly, typically on so-called "Patch Tuesday." Other operating systems may not be updated quite as frequently or on a regular schedule. It's best to set your operating system to update automatically. The method for doing so will vary depending upon your particular operating system.
If your computer uses Windows XP as the operating system, it's very important to be aware that Microsoft support for Windows XP ended on April 8, 2014. This means that you will no longer receive software updates from Windows Update, including security updates that can help protect your computer from harmful viruses and malware. You should upgrade your operating system (if your computer can support it), purchase a new computer, or switch to a different operating system to avoid the risks of an unsupported operating system. Read this PC World article for tips on what you should do if your computer uses Windows XP.
In the past, computer security experts regarded operating systems as the “Achilles’ heel” of computer security. More recently, experts have come to regard commonly installed software programs as the greater threat to security. With that in mind, you may wish to reconsider the software that you use for browsing the Internet and how you choose to read portable (or .pdf) documents.
Your Internet browser. Many people regard the Mozilla Firefox browser as superior to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Mozilla tends to patch Firefox security vulnerabilities more quickly than Microsoft patches Explorer. One advantage of Firefox is that it is an “open source” program. This allows security professionals to become involved in fixing bugs and building stronger security features. Another advantage of Firefox is its so-called Add-Ons, which can be used to strengthen Firefox’s built-in security and privacy features. Three Firefox Add-Ons that we recommend are NoScript, Better Privacy, and HTTPS Everywhere.
NoScript helps protect against so-called “drive-by downloads” where simply visiting a particular website can cause malware to be downloaded and executed on your computer. Criminals can use programming flaws in browsers to get malware onto your computer via a “drive-by download” without you ever noticing. For example, this can occur when visiting a legitimate site that happens to unwittingly host an advertisement containing malware (sometimes called maladvertisements). http://blogs.computerworld.com/defending_against_drive_by_downloads. You can get NoScript at http://noscript.net/getit.
Better Privacy. Many websites have begun to utilize a type of cookie called a "flash cookie" (sometimes known as a "supercookie") that is more persistent than a regular cookie. Normal procedures for erasing standard cookies, clearing history, erasing the cache, or choosing a "delete private data" option within the browser will not affect flash cookies. Flash cookies thus may persist despite user efforts to delete all cookies. The Firefox Add-On called "BetterPrivacy" can assist in deleting flash cookies: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/betterprivacy/.
HTTPS Everywhere. HTTPS Everywhere encrypts connections to over 1,000 popular websites. Without HTTPS, your online activities are vulnerable to eavesdropping and your accounts are vulnerable to hijacking. HTTPS Everywhere makes it easier for you to keep your user names, passwords, and browsing histories private.
It’s important to note that HTTPS Everywhere can protect you only when you're using sites that support HTTPS and for which HTTPS Everywhere includes rules. HTTPS Everywhere depends entirely on the security features of the individual websites that you use. It activates those security features, but it can't create them if they don't already exist. If you use a site not supported by HTTPS Everywhere or a site that provides some information in an insecure way, HTTPS Everywhere can't provide additional protection for your use of that site. You can read more about the limitations of HTTPS Everywhere at www.eff.org/https-everywhere/faq. You can download it at www.eff.org/https-everywhere.
You can read about other privacy protecting Firefox add-ons at addons. Read about other privacy protecting browser add-ons at
No matter which browser you use, it's important that you update it as newer versions come out which address security vulnerabilities. The Firefox browser will automatically deliver updates on a fairly frequent schedule, typically every few weeks. Other browsers may not update as frequently and may not update automatically.
The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) has prepared an extensive “How-To” guide for securing your browser. Detailed instructions and screen shots are provided for the Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Apple Safari browsers. This resource is available at www.us-cert.gov/reading_room/securing_browser/.
Your portable document reader. Most people use Adobe Reader to read and print portable documents (.pdf files), such as forms and publications. Like Internet Explorer, the Adobe Reader is extremely popular, so it has become a target for the bad guys. Adobe tends to be slow in patching security vulnerabilities. Many security experts believe that you are safer using alternative document readers. Among alternatives, the Foxit PDF Reader is probably the most popular. If you decide to download Foxit, be sure to carefully opt out of any options that would change your default search engine and home page or add a toolbar to your browser. (http://www.foxitsoftware.com/pdf/reader/ ).
Adobe Flash Player. Most computer users have Adobe’s Flash Player installed. In many cases, users are running an older version of Flash Player that may contain numerous security vulnerabilities. You can update your Flash Player at http://get.adobe.com/flashplayer/. Be sure to uncheck the bundled McAfee Security Scan Plus download if you don’t want it.
Java. If your computer has Java installed, the Department of Homeland Security has recommended that you disable it. It's unlikely that a typical computer user will ever need to use Java. Java has been responsible for a large number of malware attacks on the computers of unsuspecting users. You can disable Java by following these instructions: http://www.infoworld.com/t/web-browsers/how-disable-java-in-your-browsers-210882.
Every user of a personal computer should be familiar with firewalls, anti-virus programs, and anti-malware programs. These programs complement one another and must be used together to provide the highest level of protection to your computer. They are necessary to protect you from threats designed to damage, disrupt, or inflict illegitimate activity on your computer.
The term malware is short for malicious software. The more common types of malware include viruses, worms, Trojans, spyware, and adware. The damage inflicted by malware may range from minor annoyances to more serious problems including stealing confidential information, destroying data, and disabling your computer.
It’s not really necessary for you to understand the technical differences between these threats, but you can read a good explanation at www.cisco.com/web/about/security/intelligence/virus-worm-diffs.html. There are literally dozens of different varieties of these threats. You can read about each of them in detail in Sophos Threatsaurus: The a-z of computer and data security threats.
Most security software that comes pre-installed on a computer only works for a short time unless you pay a subscription fee to keep it in effect. In any case, security software only protects you against the newest threats if it is kept up-to-date. That's why it is critical to set your security software to update automatically.
Firewalls, anti-virus programs, and anti-malware programs are important elements to protecting your information. However, none of these is guaranteed to protect you from an attack. Combining these technologies with good security habits is the best way to reduce your risk. Some anti-virus programs also contain anti-malware capability. However, given the increasing sophistication of malware programs, it’s best to use two different anti-malware programs in addition to an anti-virus program. Each one looks for slightly different sets of threats, and used together they may offer increased security.
According to a Consumer Reports article, free programs should adequately protect all but the most at-risk Internet users from malware. Consider paying for software mostly for convenience and some extra features. www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine-archive/2010/june/electronics-computers/security-software/overview/index.htm.
Firewalls. A firewall helps to prevent data from entering or leaving your computer without your permission. It helps make you invisible on the Internet and blocks communications from unauthorized sources.
Every computer that is connected to the Internet should run a firewall at all times. There are two types of firewalls—software and hardware. You can run both simultaneously. In fact, it is a good idea to use both a software and hardware firewall. But never run two software firewalls simultaneously.
Some operating systems have built-in software firewalls. An example of a software firewall is the one built into most new Windows operating systems. Windows 7and 8, Vista and XP Service Packs 2 and 3 have built in firewalls that are turned on by default. You should leave the Windows firewall turned on unless you replace it with third-party firewall software. You can read about the built-in firewall in Windows products at www.microsoft.com/security/pc-security/firewalls-using.aspx.
Other software firewalls are supplied by outside vendors, or may be part of a commercial security suite. A software firewall must be properly configured in order to be effective. You can find a selection of free firewall software at http://download.cnet.com.
Hardware firewalls can be purchased as stand-alone products or may be found in broadband routers having firewall features. A router sits between your modem and your computer or your network. It is hard to hack your computer or a network when it is hidden behind a hardware firewall box. However, it is important to properly configure your router, particularly by changing the default password to one that is difficult to crack. To ensure that your hardware firewall is properly configured, consult the product documentation.
Anti-virus programs. A virus is simply a computer program. It can do anything that any other program you run on your computer can do. A computer virus is a program that spreads by first infecting files or the system areas of a computer and then making copies of itself. While some viruses are harmless, others may damage data files, some may destroy files, and others may just spread to other computers.
Anti-virus software helps to protect your computer from viruses that can destroy your data, slow your computer's performance, or cause your computer to crash. Anti-virus software scans your computer for patterns that may indicate an infection. The patterns it looks for are based on the signatures, or definitions, of known viruses. Virus authors are continually releasing new and updated viruses, so it is important that you have the latest definitions installed on your computer. There are many companies that produce anti-virus software. Your decision as to which program to use may be driven by user recommendations, features, or price (many programs are available at no cost).
Detailed reviews of anti-virus software are available from AV Comparatives, an independent anti-virus software testing organization, http://www.av-comparatives.org/.
You should not have two anti-virus programs actively running resident on your computer at the same time. Running more than one anti-virus program at the same time can potentially cause conflicts that affect your computer's performance. Be sure to fully disable or remove any anti-virus programs that you are no longer using or which are not currently being updated with new definitions.
On the other hand, it is permissible to run a periodic scan with a second anti-virus program (such as an online virus scanner) as long as the program is not actively running resident on your computer.
For more about viruses, see www.us-cert.gov/reading_room/virus.html. To read more about anti-virus programs, see www.us-cert.gov/cas/tips/ST04-005.html. You can find a selection of free anti-virus programs at http://download.cnet.com.
Anti-malware (anti-spyware) programs. Malware is a broad category of computer threats including spyware, adware, Trojan horses, and other unwanted programs that may be installed without your knowledge or consent. Spyware can secretly gather your information through your Internet connection without your knowledge. Once spyware is installed, it may deploy numerous files onto your system. Some of these files are so well hidden that they are difficult to find and remove.
When spyware is running on a computer system, there is almost no data outside of its reach. Commonly targeted data includes your Internet activity, email and contact information, and your keystrokes. Spyware can track your online activity, looking for websites visited, financial data such as credit card numbers or financial account numbers on your screen, browsing and online purchasing habits, and passwords. When keywords of interest like names of banks or online payment systems are observed, the spyware starts its data collection process.
Spyware programs may be included with other software you want. When you consent to download a program, such as a music sharing program, you may also be consenting to download spyware. You might not be aware that you agreed to the spyware installation because your consent is buried in an end-user-license agreement (EULA).
Be cautious about clicking on pop-up boxes. Spyware programs may create a pop-up box where you can click “yes” or “no” to a particular question. If you click on either choice your browser may be tricked into thinking you initiated a download of spyware.
Anti-malware and anti-spyware programs can help to eliminate many of these threats. Security experts recommend that you use at least two, and preferably three anti-malware/anti-spyware programs on your computer, as no one program has been found to be fully effective at detecting and removing these threats. For more about spyware and malware, read www.us-cert.gov/cas/tips/ST04-016.html.
Examples of sites offering free anti-malware software include:
· Malwarebytes www.malwarebytes.org/
· Spybot Search and Destroy www.safer-networking.org/en/index.html
· Super Anti-Spyware www.superantispyware.com/
Use a limited access or standard account. Most recent versions of Windows operating systems allow you to create a limited or standard account that does not have administrative privileges. This limited account is intended for someone who is prohibited from changing most computer settings and deleting important files. A user with a limited account generally cannot install software or hardware, but can access programs that have already been installed on the computer. On the other hand, the administrator account is intended for someone who can make changes to the computer and install software.
Security professionals recommend that you create a limited or standard account and use it at all times except when you actually need to install software or hardware or change your system’s settings. Log in to your administrator account only when you need to do so to make system changes.
Using administrator rights sparingly can help protect your computer from numerous vulnerabilities. An account without administrative rights can offer a great deal of protection. Creating and using a limited account for most daily tasks, such as surfing the web and reading emails, will reduce the amount and type of malware that is able to infect your computer. Many forms of malware require a user to be running as an administrator in order to infect your computer. Operating as a limited or standard user greatly reduces the effectiveness of many types of malware.
You can read how to set up a limited access or standard user account on Windows Vista and Windows 7 operating systems at www.howtohaven.com/system/standard-user-account.shtml.
Keep your software up-to-date. Computer hackers are always finding new ways to penetrate the defenses of your software programs. Software vendors respond with patches that close newly found security holes. To stay protected, you need to download and install patches for both your operating system and your software applications whenever they become available. Software patches or updates often address a problem or vulnerability within a program.
Sometimes, vendors will release an upgraded version of their software, although they may refer to the upgrade as a patch. It is important to install a patch as soon as possible to protect your computer from attackers who would take advantage of the vulnerability. Attackers may target vulnerabilities for months or even years after patches are available.
Some software will automatically check for updates, and some vendors offer users the option to receive automatic notification of updates through a mailing list. If these automatic options are available, take advantage of them. If they are not available, check your software vendors' websites periodically for updates. Only download software patches from websites that you trust. Do not trust a link in an email message. Beware of email messages that claim that they have attached the patch to the message—these attachments are often viruses.
If you are using Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7 or 8, you can configure the Automatic Updates features in Windows to notify you when important updates are available for your computer. For step-by-step instructions see http://support.microsoft.com/kb/306525.
It’s also very important to keep your other software programs up to date. This can be a daunting task, since many computers contain dozens of software programs. Many are pre-installed when you buy your computer. Hackers are constantly attacking flaws in popular software products such as Adobe PDF Reader, Adobe Flash Player, QuickTime, and Java.
A good solution to the problem of updating your computer’s software is Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI). Secunia PSI is a free software program designed to detect vulnerable and outdated programs on your Windows computer. This program alerts you when your programs require updating to stay secure. You can download Secunia PSI at http://secunia.com/vulnerability_scanning/personal/.
Use strong passwords. Whenever you have an opportunity to create and use a password to protect your information, make sure that you use a strong password. Passwords are frequently the only thing protecting our private information from prying eyes. Many websites that store your personal information (for example web mail, photo or document storage sites, and money management sites) require a password for protection. However, password-protected websites are becoming more vulnerable because often people use the same passwords on numerous sites. Strong passwords can help individuals protect themselves against hackers, identity theft and other privacy invasions. For 10 tips on creating a hacker-resistant password, see our Alert www.privacyrights.org/ar/alertstrongpasswords.htm.
In most instances, it's safe to ignore admonitions to regularly change your passwords. While once considered a security "best practice", changing your passwords regularly ranks relatively low as a means of protecting your accounts. Of course, if you believe that your password has been breached or compromised, it is essential to change it immediately. Read "How Often Should I Change My Passwords?" at http://lifehacker.com/5966214/how-often-should-i-change-my-passwords.
Password managers can help make it easier for you to use unique and strong passwords for any website requiring a login. You can read an analysis of the options available to you at http://lifehacker.com/5944969/which-password-manager-is-the-most-secure. Never store an unencrypted list of passwords on or near your computer.
Password recovery methods are frequently the "weakest link", enabling a hacker to reset your password and lock you out of your account. Make sure your security questions aren't easily answerable. It's also a good idea to have your password resets go to a separate email account designed for resets only. Read more at http://lifehacker.com/5932501/strong-passwords-arent-enough-how-to-to-ensure-the-apple-and-amazon-exploit-never-happens-to-you.
Unfortunately, experts warn that the security of passwords has never been weaker. New hardware and techniques have contributed to a sharp rise in password cracking by hackers. Read more about these advances at http://arstechnica.com/security/2012/08/passwords-under-assault/.
You can check the strength of your passwords with Microsoft's password checker at https://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/security/pc-security/password-checker.aspx.
Avoiding spam. Spam is loosely defined as unsolicited, unwanted email messages from a sender you don’t know. Spam email is usually sent in bulk with messages having substantially identical content. Spam messages, by the billions, flood computer mailboxes each year.
Spam breaks down further into two categories:
· nuisance emails, such as solicitations to buy products or services
· malicious emails, which often seek to trick you into revealing personal information that then can be used to defraud or damage you and your computer
The vast majority of spam falls into the first category. Since this fact sheet deals with computer security, we will focus on the latter category.
The best practice for protecting your computer from threats is to simply never open spam messages. They potentially could subject your computer to malicious code. Using the spam filter contained in your email program can also help protect against malicious spam. Web-based email services such as Gmail and Yahoo frequently update their spam filters. If you use Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Mail, Windows Live Mail or Thunderbird you can download free Spamfighter software at www.spamfighter.com/Product_Info.asp.
For more information about spam, please read our fact sheet “Anti-Spam Resources” at https://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs20-spam.htm. The Federal Trade Commission operates a microsite devoted to spam at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/menus/consumer/tech/spam.shtm.
Be skeptical. Think before you click. Don’t open unexpected email attachments from unknown persons. Just because an email message looks like it came from someone doesn't mean that it actually did. Scammers can "spoof" the return address, making it look like the message came from someone else. If you can, check with the person who supposedly sent the message to make sure it's legitimate before opening any attachments. For more information, read www.us-cert.gov/cas/tips/ST04-010.html.
Don’t click on links embedded in email messages. It’s usually safer to go to the company’s website directly from your browser than by clicking on a link in an email message, unless you are absolutely certain that the email was actually sent by the person or company claiming to have sent the message. This will help you avoid becoming a victim of “phishing”. Phishing is the fraudulent process of attempting to acquire sensitive information by masquerading as a trustworthy entity. Phishing is typically carried out by email and often directs users to enter details at a fake website whose look and feel are almost identical to the legitimate one. For more information, read www.us-cert.gov/reading_room/emailscams_0905.pdf and http://www.consumerfed.org/pdfs/Phishing-Tips.pdf.
Spear phishing is a type of phishing attack that appears to be from a colleague, employer or friend and includes a link or something to download. Spear phishing often targets senior executives at organizations that may have valuable information stored on their computers. These messages may be personalized with publicly available information about the recipient to make them look genuine. They are therefore more difficult to detect than ordinary phishing. The links or downloads included in such a message can be malicious, and might include viruses or fake websites that solicit personal information. For more information, read www.infoworld.com/d/security/how-stop-your-executives-being-harpooned-946?source=footer and http://www.smartmoney.com/spend/technology/spearphishing-fraud-hooks-more-victims-1344216685145/.
No matter how official an email message looks, never access a financial account by clicking on an embedded link. If the email is fraudulent, a scammer could use the account number and password you enter to steal your identity and empty your account. One way to protect against this is to use an incorrect password on the first try. A phishing site will accept an incorrect password, while a legitimate site won't. You should also avoid calling any telephone number in an unsolicited email unless you have confirmed that it is a legitimate number.
You have probably seen emails promising rewards, gifts, or “too good to be true” deals. However, regardless of what the email claims, there are not any wealthy strangers desperate to send you money or give something away. Beware of promises, as they are most likely to be spam, hoaxes, or phishing schemes.
Avoid social engineering attacks. Social engineering can be defined as the process of obtaining information from other people through the application of social skills. The objective of social engineering is to deceive the computer user into compromising his/her system and revealing sensitive information.
Social engineering ploys take advantage of human nature by tricking people into installing malware or revealing personal information. The user is tempted to carry out a necessary activity that damages their computer. This occurs when the user receives a message directing him/her to open a file or web page or watch a video. Often, these ploys relate to celebrities, natural disasters, or popular events.
One common trick includes showing a fake virus scan that indicates your computer is infected and encourages you to download a tool to remove the infection. Another ploy offers to display a video, but only after you install a plug-in that is “required” to view the content.
These ploys sometimes will present themselves as a pop-up. To close a pop-up, carefully click on the X on the upper right corner, not within the window itself. To avoid pop-ups altogether, enable your browser’s pop-up blocker or use pop-up blocking software.
It’s important to note that no technology is capable of protecting the computer user from social engineering. You should only install software or browser add-ons if you actually are looking for them in the first place. Always be sure that you are downloading the software directly from the source or a reliable site such as http://download.cnet.com.
You can read more about social engineering at:
Search engine poisoning. You have probably noticed that companies can "game" Google and other search engines. This is known as search engine optimization (SEO). While SEO can be annoying, especially if it causes poor search engine results, it is generally relatively harmless.
Unfortunately, SEO can also be used to attack information seekers whenever an important news event occurs. Malware attackers can inundate search results with links to malicious sites. Internet security firm Blue Coat found that poisoned search engine results are the number one malware threat, accounting for 40 percent of malware attacks. http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/the-exchange/poisoned-search-results-more-malware-threat-probably-think-150643365.html.
Search engine sponsored links (i.e., advertisements) may also be poisoned. For example, searches for Adobe Flash Player downloads on the Bing and Yahoo search engines led to sponsored links for poisoned sites. Downloads from these rogue sites contained malware. www.computerworld.com/s/article/9220859/Bing_Yahoo_sponsored_results_lead_to_hard_to_remove_rootkit
Search engine poisoning can be difficult to avoid. You can help to avoid reaching malicious sites by only clicking on trusted sites and by carefully checking the URLs of sites to make sure that they are not “copycat” sites. Read a report on “The Web's Most Dangerous Search Terms” at http://us.mcafee.com/en-us/local/docs/most_dangerous_searchterm_us.pdf.
Be cautious when using P2P (peer-to-peer) file sharing. Peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing allows users to share files online through an informal network of computers running the same software. Whether it is music, games, or software, file-sharing can give people access to a wealth of information. While P2P file sharing can be used for legitimate purposes, much of the content shared includes copyright-protected material that is being shared illegally, that is, in breach of copyright laws.
Every day, millions of computer users share files online. To share files through a P2P network, you download special software that connects your computer to other computers running the same software. Millions of users could be connected to each other through this software at one time. The software often is free.
File-sharing can have a number of risks. For example, when you are connected to file-sharing programs, you may unknowingly allow others to copy private files – even giving access to entire folders and subfolders – you never intended to share. You may download material that is protected by copyright laws and find yourself mired in legal issues. You may download a virus, malware, spyware, or facilitate a data security breach. Or you may unwittingly download pornography labeled as something else. For these reasons, we recommend extreme caution when using P2P file sharing. For more information on P2P, see www.onguardonline.gov/topics/p2p-security.aspx.
Turn off your computer or disconnect if from the Internet. It’s best to turn off your computer if you will not be using it for a long period of time. The development of DSL and cable modems has made it possible for computers to be online all the time, but this convenience comes with risks. The likelihood of your computer being compromised is much higher if your computer is always connected to the Internet. Depending on what method you use to connect to the Internet, disconnecting may mean disabling a wireless connection, turning off your computer or modem, or disconnecting cables. This can reduce the chance that a malicious remote computer will penetrate your computer.
Alternatively, you can simply turn your computer off. This has the added advantage of saving energy. It’s also a good idea to turn off your computer periodically, since Windows will reboot when you restart your computer. Rebooting clears your computer of files that can degrade your computer’s performance.
Do not leave unencrypted sensitive documents on your device. It's best to encrypt sensitive files and store them on an unconnected device such as a password protected USB thumb drive. For added security, keep the USB drive in a locked filing cabinet or a safe deposit box.
Back up all your data. While your computer may be an expensive asset, it is replaceable. However, the data and personal records on your computer may be difficult or impossible to replace. Whether or not you take steps to protect yourself, there is always the possibility that something will happen to destroy your data.
Regularly backing up your data can reduce the impact of a computer malfunction. Determining how often to back up your data is a personal decision. You don't need to back up software that you own on CD-ROM or DVD-ROM—you can reinstall the software from the original media if necessary.
There are many hardware and software alternatives for backing up your data including USB flash drives and external hard drives (hardware) as well as archiving and disk imaging programs (software). Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages. For a simple solution, important files can be saved to an encrypted USB flash drive. It’s a good idea to keep your backup media in a locked and secure location.
You can read more about backing up your data in “Options for Backing Up Your Computer” at www.eset.com/fileadmin/Images/US/Docs/Home/Staying_Secure/2205_19_0_EsetWP-OptionsBackingUpComputer.pdf.
Type carefully. Scammers sometimes create look-alike sites that may utilize common misspellings of popular URLs. Pay attention to the URL of a website. Malicious websites may look identical to a legitimate site, but the URL may use a variation in spelling or a different domain (e.g., .com vs. .net).
Protect sensitive information. Do not reveal personal or financial information in email, and do not respond to email solicitations for this information. This includes following links sent in email. Don't send sensitive information over the Internet before checking a website's security.
Encrypt files on your computer, laptop or portable device. Computers are lost, stolen or hacked every day. As a result, your personal information can become available to anyone and may lead to privacy invasion and identity theft. Many computers and other devices contain sensitive files such as financial records, tax returns, medical histories, and other personal files.
Many computer users rely on laptops and other portable devices because they are small and easily transported. But while these characteristics make them convenient, they also make them an attractive target for thieves. Make sure to secure your portable devices to protect both the machine and the information it contains. It’s important to encrypt any sensitive data on such devices. For other tips, see www.us-cert.gov/cas/tips/ST04-017.html.
USB flash drives pose security risks for similar reasons. Use them cautiously. Some flash drives offer built-in encryption features. Read www.us-cert.gov/cas/tips/ST08-001.html for tips on careful USB flash drive use.
Encryption is a way to enhance the security of a file or folder by scrambling the contents so that it can be read only by someone who has the appropriate encryption key to unscramble it.
Unencrypted files on your computer can be read by anyone even if your computer is password protected! There are methods by which a person who has physical access to your computer can read unencrypted files without entering your Windows password. So it’s important to encrypt sensitive files even if they are on a password-protected desktop computer.
Windows has a built in file encryption program called Encrypting File System (EFS). EFS allows you to store information on your hard disk in an encrypted format. To use EFS, the user must affirmatively choose to encrypt a particular file or folder. It is not automatic. You can read about EFS at http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows-vista/Encrypt-or-decrypt-a-folder-or-file.
You can read about additional free encryption programs for Windows at www.techsupportalert.com/best-free-file-encryption-utility.htm. For a comprehensive guide to encrytion, see
A few additional “Don’ts”
· Don’t download free screensavers, wallpaper, games, or toolbars unless you know they're safe. These free downloads may come with embedded malware. It’s always best to download software from a reputable site such as CNet at http://download.cnet.com/.
· Don’t visit questionable websites. Hacker sites, sexually explicit sites, and sites that engage in piracy are known for having malware. Just viewing a page can download malware to your computer.
· Don’t give out your full name, address, phone number, Social Security number, financial account numbers, full date of birth, or other personal information in a chat room or social networks.
An increasing number of households and businesses are establishing wireless networks to link multiple computers, printers, and other devices. A wireless network offers the significant advantage of enabling you to build a computer network without stringing wires. Unfortunately, these systems usually come out of the box with the security features turned off. This makes the network easy to set up, but also easy to break into. Most wireless networks use the 802.11 protocol, also known as Wi-Fi.
Security risks of using wireless data networks. Wireless networks have spawned a past-time among hobbyists and corporate spies called war-driving. The data voyeur drives around a neighborhood or office district using a laptop and free software to locate unsecured wireless networks in the vicinity, usually within 100 yards of the source. The laptop captures the data that is transmitted to and from the network's computers and printers. The data could include anything from one's household finances to business secrets.
Most home Wi-Fi access points, routers, and gateways are shipped with a default network name (known as an SSID) and default administrative credentials (username and password) to make setup as simple as possible. These default settings should be changed as soon as you set up your Wi-Fi network. In addition, some routers are equipped by default with "Guest" accounts that can be accessed without a password. "Guest" accounts should be disabled or password protected.
The typical automated installation process disables many security features to simplify the installation. Not only can data be stolen, altered, or destroyed, but programs and even extra computers can be added to the unsecured network without your knowledge. This risk is highest in densely populated neighborhoods and office building complexes.
Home networks should be secured with a minimum of WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access version 2) encryption. Routers purchased in the last six years should include WPA2 security technology. Often, you have to specifically turn on WPA2 to use it. The older WEP encryption has become an easy target for hackers. Also, do not name your home network using a name that reveals your identity.
Setting up your home Wi-Fi access point can be a complex process and is well beyond the scope of this fact sheet. To ensure that your system is secure, review your user's manuals and web resources for information on security. TheWi-Fi Alliance offers tips for setting up a home Wi-Fi connection at http://www.wi-fi.org/security. Another good resource is Lifehacker's The Most Important Security Settings to Change on Your Router.
Two other useful guides can be found at:
Security risks of using Wi-Fi hotspots. The number of Wi-Fi hotspot locations has grown dramatically and includes schools, libraries, cafes, airports, and hotels. With a Wi-Fi connection you can be connected to the Internet almost anywhere. You can conduct the same online activities over Wi-Fi as you could at home or work, such as checking email and surfing the web.
However, you must consider the risks to your privacy and the security of your laptop or netbook when using a Wi-Fi hotspot. Most Wi-Fi hotspots are unsecured and unencrypted. This is the major security risk of Wi-Fi. Even the expensive fee-based Wi-Fi service available in many airplanes may be as insecure as the free Wi-Fi offered at your corner coffee house. www.privatewifi.com/flying-naked-why-airplane-wifi-is-so-unsafe. Therefore, you must take additional steps to protect your privacy.
Because the network at a Wi-Fi hotspot is unsecured, Internet connections remain open to intrusion. Hackers can intercept network traffic to steal your information.
There are 3 major privacy threats in a Wi-Fi hotspot:
· Man-In-The-Middle Attack refers to the act of intercepting the connection between your computer and the wireless router that is providing the connection. In a successful attack, the hacker can collect all the information transferred and replay it on his/her computer.
· Eavesdropping refers to the act of using sniffer software to steal data that is being transmitted over the network. A sniffer is an application or device that can read, monitor, and capture network data. This is particularly dangerous when conducting transactions over the Internet since sniffers can retrieve logon details as well as important information such as credit card numbers.
· Looking over the shoulder is the simple act of others peering over your shoulder to see your activities.
Protecting your privacy at a Wi-Fi hotspot: The basics. There are various ways to help protect your privacy when using Wi-Fi. Begin with basic common sense. Look around to see if anyone is surreptitiously trying to look at your computer. Do not leave your computer unattended. Never conduct unsecured transactions over unsecured Wi-Fi. When entering sensitive information (such as your Social Security number, password, or credit card number), ensure that either the website encrypts the information or that your Wi-Fi connection is encrypted. Disable your wireless adapter if you are not using the Internet. Otherwise, you leave your computer open to vulnerabilities if it accidentally connects to the first available network.
VPN (Virtual Private Network). This is the first line of defense against vulnerabilities created by Wi-Fi. A VPN provides encryption over an unencrypted Wi-Fi connection. It will help ensure that all web pages visited, log-on details, and contents of email messages remain encrypted. This renders intercepted traffic useless to the hacker. You can obtain software to set up a VPN through your office or home computer, or you can use a commercial provider’s hosted VPN service.
Secure surfing/SSL. When checking your email or conducting any important transaction, adding an “s” after “http” may give you a secured connection to the website (for example, https://www.gmail.com). Many webmail services provide this feature. This ensures that your login details are encrypted thereby rendering it useless to hackers. Although your email login may be encrypted, some webmail providers may not encrypt your Inbox and messages.
Check for SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificates on all websites on which you conduct sensitive transaction. SSL creates a secure connection between a client and a server, over which any amount of data can be sent securely. The Trustworthy Internet Movement surveys the SSL implementation of the most popular websites on its SSL Pulse page.
Wi-Fi settings. Ensure that your computer is not set to automatically connect to the nearest available Wi-Fi access point. This may not necessarily be a legitimate connection point but instead an access point on a hacker’s computer.
Disable file sharing. Make sure that file sharing is disabled on your computer to ensure that intruders cannot access your private files through the network. With file sharing enabled, it's possible for unauthorized individuals to access your files.
Firewall. Install a firewall on your computer and keep it enabled at all times when using Wi-Fi. This should prevent intrusion through the ports on the computer.
Security updates. Keep your computer’s software and operating system up-to-date. This will help plug security holes in the software or operating system.
You can read handy guides to staying safe at public Wi-Fi networks at:
Before you donate, sell or discard your computer, you must take steps to insure that no trace of your personal data remains. Although you may not see them, hundreds of “deleted” files can be recovered with the right kind of software. When a file is deleted, it is not actually removed from the hard disk. All that is done is that a marker is set on the hard disk to indicate that the file is no longer available. The contents of the file are still present on the hard disk.
Therefore, in order to make sure that your data cannot be recovered, your hard drive must be either physically destroyed or scrubbed by a utilities program designed for this purpose. Hitting the delete button is not enough as anyone with minimum skills can easily retrieve the data. Likewise, reformatting your hard drive may delete the files, but the information is still there somewhere. Unless those areas of the disk are effectively overwritten with new content, it is still possible that knowledgeable attackers may be able to access the information.
Several free programs are available for wiping hard drives:
· Eraser: http://eraser.heidi.ie/
· Darik’s Boot and Nuke: www.dban.org/
· Killdisk: www.killdisk.com/
The exact method you use to wipe your hard drive depends on whether you intend the hard drive to be reused. But no matter what your intent is, the hard drive should be completely clean before it leaves your hands.
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse Fact Sheets:
· Fact Sheet 18. Online Privacy: Using the Internet Safely
· Fact Sheet 18a. Online Privacy FAQ
· Fact Sheet 23. Online Shopping Tips: E-Commerce and You
· Fact Sheet 35. Social Networking Privacy: How to be Safe, Secure and Social
U.S. Government Resources:
OnGuardOnline is the federal government’s website to help you be safe, secure and responsible online. The site provides tips for protecting your information and your computer while online at http://onguardonline.gov/topics/secure-your-computer.
Other Useful Resources:
GetNetWise is a public service brought to you by Internet industry corporations and public interest organizations to help ensure that Internet users have safe, constructive, and educational or entertaining online experiences. It offers computer security tips and tools at http://security.getnetwise.org/.
The Sophos Threatsarus walks you through practical measures you can take to improve your computer security at home and in the office. www.sophos.com/medialibrary/PDFs/marketing%20material/sophosthreatsaurusazen.pdf
The National Cyber Security Alliance offers resources to help you know the basics of securing your home network and your family’s privacy at http://staysafeonline.org/stay-safe-online/keep-a-clean-machine/securing-your-home-network
McAfee offers a glossary that lists terms you may come across when reading about online security and threats at http://home.mcafee.com/VirusInfo/Glossary.aspx.
Krebs on Security offers Tools for a Safer PC at http://krebsonsecurity.com/tools-for-a-safer-pc/
California Attorney General, Cybersecurity in the Golden State: How California Businesses Can Protect Against and Respond to Malware, Data Breaches and Other Cyberincidents (February 2014)
Browse Privacy Topics
Background Checks & Workplace
Banking & Finance
Credit & Credit Reports
Harassment & Stalking
Identity Theft & Data Breaches
Online Privacy & Technology
Privacy When You Shop
Public Records & Info Brokers
Social Security Numbers
Who We Are
We are a nationally recognized consumer education and advocacy nonprofit dedicated to protecting the privacy of American consumers.