Small Steps to More Secure Computing

An effective security plan is a big job, but a real and inescapable necessity.

July 1, 2004

Are you doing all you can to protect yourself from unwanted intrusion and data theft, both online and offline? If you wait until you’re a victim, the effects of a security breach could be disruptive at best, and financially and professionally devastating at worst.

Consider just three recent reports as examples of the escalating threat to the unprotected users of technology:

  • Last month security researchers identified a new “Trojan Horse” virus, which is set to record all your keystrokes, including log-in and passwords, when you visit major financial sites. It then forwards that string of characters to a remote server. This invasive bit of code entered and infected computers through one of those annoying pop-up ads that appear when browsing some popular Web sites with Internet Explorer. Read more about the Trojan Horse virus at Info World.
  • Researchers at Gartner Inc. warned of the threat that compact digital storage devices such as pocket drives, USB drives, and even Apple's iPods pose danger for quick theft of large amounts of data stored on a network or PC. The devices’ large storage capacity, easy connection, and quick data transfer via USB or FireWire makes them convenient tools for those intent on stealing someone else’s files. Read more about security risks posed by portable storage devices at Info World.
  • Hackers released the first self-replicating cell phone virus, apparently to prove it can be done. Dubbed Cabir, this virus only targets smartphones running Symbian operating system software and equipped with Bluetooth. Once a phone is infected, the virus hijacks its Bluetooth connection to detect and transmit itself to compatible cell phones. Learn more on Symantec’s Web site.

Collectively, developments like these provide the latest reminders that security threats are real and growing. It’s unlikely they’ll ever be completely eliminated but there are some common sense steps you can take to protect your data resources:

Be proactive. Better to act now, than to react later after the worst has happened. Take advantage of any and all measures you can implement for more secure computing and communications on and offline.

Educate yourself. Begin by making yourself aware of how and where your resources and tools may be compromised. Are you discussing sensitive personal, professional, or financial information over the phone that you’d rather keep secret? Sending financial data by e-mail? Leaving your computer or PDA unattended for periods of time? Setting security concerns aside when you log on to Wi-Fi hot spots? Assess how and where you’re most vulnerable to unauthorized access, infection, or data and you can begin implementing protective measures.

Cover the basics. Effective security starts with something as simple as a cable or antitheft device for a notebook or PDA. It also means locking files, setting up passwords to access to data, and encrypting sensitive communications, online or through wireless connections.

Subscribe to anti-virus software. It’s your best defense for detecting and preventing malicious code from wreaking havoc on hardware and software. Review your options from popular vendors such as ComputerAssociates, McAfee, Symantec, and Trend Micro.

Install a firewall. A firewall protects against virus infection and unauthorized access to your computer or network when connected to the Internet.

Avoid strangers and attachments. Simply don’t open e-mail attachments if you weren’t already expecting them or don’t know the sender. And, delete any e-mail message from a stranger that invites you to follow a link to an unfamiliar Web site.

Turn off pop-ups. Not only are they a nuisance, they’ve now been shown to be a point of potential infection. If your browser doesn’t allow you to turn them off (only the latest version of Internet Explorer allows you to do so, for instance), there are many tools, such as STOPzilla or Popup Dummy, which you can use to disable them.

Reconsider your software. It could be time to rethink some of the applications you rely upon. The more popular a program is, the more attractive the target to hackers. You may not be ready to switch from Windows to Linux, as an operating system but you might want to consider alternative browsers to Internet Explorer, such as Opera or Netscape.

Follow the vendor’s lead. Vendors do their best to aggressively identify and fix the security flaws in their products; they’re also reliable sources of the latest information and solutions. Windows users should have Microsoft’s security Web site bookmarked and visit there regularly.

Install patches and updates. As part of their strategic response, publishers issue software patches or upgrades to fix their programs and eliminate potential security risks. You can download these software fixes for free at the publisher’s Web site, when available. Antivirus software must be continually updated in response to new viruses in circulation. The solutions are only as effective as the latest version installed.

Check for spyware. Spyware, or adware, monitors what you do online and then relays that information to remote sites. There are now a number of programs available to detect and protect against Spyware. Start by downloading free software to scan your computer for presence of spyware at or

Keep informed. Technology news sites, sites maintained by antivirus software publishers, and security sites, such as Microsoft’s, are all reliable sources of information on the latest threats and effective responses. Check regularly to know if and how you are vulnerable to a new virus, and defensive actions you can take.

Keep at it. Accept that you alone can do the most to protect your data and communications online and offline, and to develop and implement an effective security plan. It’s a big job—but a real and inescapable necessity.

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