This article has been several days in the making, and I hope the content reflects that. If you haven’t already figured it out, today I’m going to take a break from talking about what’s happening now in the computing industry. Instead, I’m going to give you a pretty basic, yet still practical, overview of ways you can protect your personal information and computer in the information age. Some of it you may have heard before, and that’s fine. My goal for this article is not to break any new ground or come to some amazing conclusion at the end of the article. My goal is to have this article serve as a reference for you as you make decisions about passwords, virus protection, and wireless network security. I hope you’ll find this article useful enough to bookmark it and come back to it when you’re looking for a link to a program that does something I’ve described here. So, let’s get started.

Use Passwords

The simplest, and probably the easiest way to protect yourself from a violation of your privacy on the internet is to use passwords. All computers have the capability to require a password when they return from their screen saver. I highly recommend enabling this setting. If you’re like me, your computer memorizes some passwords for you. A prime example is email passwords.

Having your computer memorize your email passwords isn’t a bad thing – as you’re probably not transmitting state secrets through your email – but you should certainly be more wary of other types of passwords, like your online banking password. It’s not uncommon for people to have their web browser memorize these passwords for them. This is a bad idea, but if you’re like me you have too many passwords to remember them all.

My recommendation is to use a program specifically designed to keep your passwords locked down tight. I recommend RoboForm for Windows and 1Password for Mac. These apps plug right into your web browser, and will add an additional password of protection. So, if you choose a good password for one of these memorization programs – you can remember one really strong password, and never have to worry about forgetting the others.

If you’re a smartphone user and have your phone hooked up to anything sensitive (like corporate email), it might be a good idea to start using a lock code to wake your phone from sleep. If that’s too much of an inconvenience for you (as it is for me), you might consider a program that will only request a lock code when you try to start specific apps. For Android, App Protector Pro is a good product.

Protect your Wireless

Wireless networking is one of the most revolutionary innovations in networking since the inception of Ethernet. Before wireless became affordable, you had two options for home networking: either run ethernet cable throughout your house or use the home phone lines. My family opted for the latter when we first networked my computer upstairs to the computer downstairs so that I could print. Quite frankly, it sucked.

Of course, the problem with wireless always was that it would allow anyone in range of your connection to connect to the Internet for free at your expense and (even scarier) allow them to intercept your traffic. Or, if that doesn’t concern you enough then think aobut this: someone could use your connection for illegal file sharing and you would get sued, since it is your connection (no lie, it’s happened to me).

Enter WEP. WEP was the first encryption algorithm available for wireless networks that would grant you access to the network if you knew a pre-determined sequence of letters or numbers (link of a lock and key). These days, WEP is considered a joke – and if you use it you’re declaring yourself open season for people like me who have the tools to break into WEP networks. Of course, everyone knew WEP had problems, which lead to the inception of WPA and WPA2.

Many modern devices support WPA2, which is the latest, most advanced standard in wireless security and, as of the time of this writing, has never been cracked. Those that don’t support WPA2, will at least support WPA. When you’re shopping for a new wireless router for your home or apartment, most websites will indicate what encryption each particular device supports. See below (click to enlarge):

A selection of routers from Newegg where their security capabilities are indicated.
You can see on the enlarged version of the image above where the WPA and Security support are clearly spelled out. Never buy a device that does not support WPA or does not specify on the box or online listing whether or not it supports WPA.

It is also worth noting that many times Internet Service Provider Representatives that set up a wireless router for you when they set up your internet will set your router to use WEP encryption, since it has the widest compatibility and is not likely to cause you any grief (which means they won’t get called out to your home on service calls). Unfortunately, this is setting you up for disaster. If you currently have a wireless router and it is set up using WEP encryption or with no encryption at all, then I suggest that you consult your owner’s manual to enable the encryption for your device.

Firewall, Anti-Virus, and Anti-Spyware

A firewall is a preventative measure against intrusion into your computer by a hacker or program that would transmit your information over the internet without your authorization. There are a number of different types of Firewall systems that are out there. For Windows, I personally recommend ZoneAlarm for those that are super concerned about personal security. Since Windows Vista, the built-in firewall is pretty strong, but you might need to turn it on if it wasn’t turned on by default. For Mac, the built-in firewall is also sufficient. Links on enabling the firewalls in Windows and Mac are below.

All viruses, worms, trojans, and spyware are all examples of software that can end up on your computer and do something you don’t want to happen. The best advice I can give you for avoiding these rodents boils down to “don’t be an idiot.” Know who you’re downloading things from, and use your head when you’re browsing the internet. For example, does the website look like it was designed by a professional? If not, you should strongly consider whether or not you want to download it.

However, it never hurts to be prepared in the event that something makes it onto your hard drive that you never wanted there, so here are my recommendations for dealing with each type of problem:

Protection against Viruses/Worms/Trojans:

There really isn’t a lot to say about anti-virus programs. They pretty much do their job automatically. Below are some of the best ones I know about. Fair warning: you should never install more than one anti-virus program on your machine. It doesn’t end well.

Protection against Spyware

Some Spyware programs run in the background, but it’s usually not necessary. Unlike anti-virus programs, I highly suggest installing multiple Anti-Spyware programs on your computer. Different programs use different methods of tracking down these programs, and some spyware programs will be programmed with some protection against Anti-Spyware. You’re best bet is to have a couple of tools in your belt.

  • Windows - Ad-aware (free and commercial editions)
  • Spybot Search & Destroy (free)
  • Mac - As spyware is not a serious epidemic on mac machines, there isn’t much out there. The only thing I know about is a program called MacScan – but that’s costs a good chunk of change.

Conclusion

This is merely a basic collection of tips for maintaining a minimum level of security as you navigate the “series of tubes” we call the Internet. As always, I welcome feedback on my articles. This one turned into a beast, so I hope you’ll excuse any grammatical errors you may see. Also, I would love to hear any simple security tips that I missed – or maybe some horror stories of having your computer infected with a virus of some sort. Either way, show me the comment love.