I am regularly asked what average Internet users can do to ensure their security. My first answer is usually, “Nothing—you’re screwed.”
But that’s not true, and the reality is more complicated. You’re screwed if you do nothing to protect yourself, but there are many things you can do to increase your security on the Internet.
Two years ago, I published a list of PC security recommendations. The idea was to give home users concrete actions they could take to improve security. This is an update of that list: a dozen things you can do to improve your security.
General: Turn off the computer when you’re not using it, especially if you have an “always on” Internet connection.
Laptop security: Keep your laptop with you at all times when not at home; treat it as you would a wallet or purse. Regularly purge unneeded data files from your laptop. The same goes for PDAs. People tend to store more personal data—including passwords and PINs—on PDAs than they do on laptops.
Backups: Back up regularly. Back up to disk, tape or CD-ROM. There’s a lot you can’t defend against; a recent backup will at least let you recover from an attack. Store at least one set of backups off-site (a safe-deposit box is a good place) and at least one set on-site. Remember to destroy old backups. The best way to destroy CD-Rs is to microwave them on high for five seconds. You can also break them in half or run them through better shredders.
Operating systems: If possible, don’t use Microsoft Windows. Buy a Macintosh or use Linux. If you must use Windows, set up Automatic Update so that you automatically receive security patches. And delete the files “command.com” and “cmd.exe.”
Applications: Limit the number of applications on your machine. If you don’t need it, don’t install it. If you no longer need it, uninstall it. Look into one of the free office suites as an alternative to Microsoft Office. Regularly check for updates to the applications you use and install them. Keeping your applications patched is important, but don’t lose sleep over it.
Web sites: Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption does not provide any assurance that the vendor is trustworthy or that its database of customer information is secure.
Think before you do business with a Web site. Limit the financial and personal data you send to Web sites—don’t give out information unless you see a value to you. If you don’t want to give out personal information, lie. Opt out of marketing notices. If the Web site gives you the option of not storing your information for later use, take it. Use a credit card for online purchases, not a debit card.
Passwords: You can’t memorize good enough passwords any more, so don’t bother. For high-security Web sites such as banks, create long random passwords and write them down. Guard them as you would your cash: i.e., store them in your wallet, etc.
Never reuse a password for something you care about. (It’s fine to have a single password for low-security sites, such as for newspaper archive access.) Assume that all PINs can be easily broken and plan accordingly.
Never type a password you care about, such as for a bank account, into a non-SSL encrypted page. If your bank makes it possible to do that, complain to them. When they tell you that it is OK, don’t believe them; they’re wrong.
E-mail : Turn off HTML e-mail. Don’t automatically assume that any e-mail is from the “From” address.
Delete spam without reading it. Don’t open messages with file attachments, unless you know what they contain; immediately delete them. Don’t open cartoons, videos and similar “good for a laugh” files forwarded by your well-meaning friends; again, immediately delete them.
Never click links in e-mail unless you’re sure about the e-mail; copy and paste the link into your browser instead. Don’t use Outlook or Outlook Express. If you must use Microsoft Office, enable macro virus protection; in Office 2000, turn the security level to “high” and don’t trust any received files unless you have to. If you’re using Windows, turn off the “hide file extensions for known file types” option; it lets Trojan horses masquerade as other types of files. Uninstall the Windows Scripting Host if you can get along without it. If you can’t, at least change your file associations, so that script files aren’t automatically sent to the Scripting Host if you double-click them.
Antivirus and anti-spyware software : Use it—either a combined program or two separate programs. Download and install the updates, at least weekly and whenever you read about a new virus in the news. Some antivirus products automatically check for updates. Enable that feature and set it to “daily.”
Firewall : Spend $50 for a Network Address Translator firewall device; it’s likely to be good enough in default mode. On your laptop, use personal firewall software. If you can, hide your IP address. There’s no reason to allow any incoming connections from anybody.
Encryption: Install an e-mail and file encryptor (like PGP). Encrypting all your e-mail or your entire hard drive is unrealistic, but some mail is too sensitive to send in the clear. Similarly, some files on your hard drive are too sensitive to leave unencrypted.
None of the measures I’ve described are foolproof. If the secret police wants to target your data or your communications, no countermeasure on this list will stop them. But these precautions are all good network-hygiene measures, and they’ll make you a more difficult target than the computer next door. And even if you only follow a few basic measures, you’re unlikely to have any problems.
I’m stuck using Microsoft Windows and Office, but I use Opera for Web browsing and Eudora for e-mail. I use Windows Update to automatically get patches and install other patches when I hear about them. My antivirus software updates itself regularly. I keep my computer relatively clean and delete applications that I don’t need. I’m diligent about backing up my data and about storing data files that are no longer needed offline.
I’m suspicious to the point of near-paranoia about e-mail attachments and Web sites. I delete cookies and spyware. I watch URLs to make sure I know where I am, and I don’t trust unsolicited e-mails. I don’t care about low-security passwords, but try to have good passwords for accounts that involve money. I still don’t do Internet banking. I have my firewall set to deny all incoming connections. And I turn my computer off when I’m not using it.
That’s basically it. Really, it’s not that hard. The hardest part is developing an intuition about e-mail and Web sites. But that just takes experience.
This essay previously appeared on CNet