The late-summer sales are great news if you’re a PC vendor: it’s one of the busiest trading periods outside of Christmas. Back-to-school purchasing is big business, and technology is one of its greatest beneficiaries.
The start of a new school or university term is the perfect time to invest in a home PC so the kids have a machine on which to do their homework. Students setting off for university or beginning post-GCSE education will almost certainly need a laptop on which to write essays and keep in touch with friends back home, too.
But the new term is also a good time for hackers and malware vendors. With all those new PCs and laptops in circulation, there are virgin terminals ripe for infection and inexperienced users busy getting to grips with their shiny new toys, rather than paying attention to what’s lurking with intent in the ether.
We don’t want to deter you from sending the kids off to university or setting up younger offspring with new PCs and laptops for homework. But you’ll want to ensure their machines will run infection-free and won’t leave your little dears with egg on their faces.
If you’ve just bought a new computer with this in mind, you’re no doubt enamoured of the slickness of the Windows 7 operating system. Although it’s no radical update to Vista, it’s a more immediately likable version of Windows to use. It offers improvements to home networking and introduces a more logical way of storing and accessing files. There’s also a more refined Security Centre that allows you to manage many aspects of your new computer’s setup and to see, at a glance, the status of its various tools.
Even so, many of us are likely to skip spending time on such mundane aspects in favour of getting to know the more exciting capabilities of our new computers. This is human nature, but it could leave you exposed to a number of threats.
Here, we look at some of the most important security issues when setting up a new PC or laptop, and what you can do to ensure a safe computing experience.
Avoid common security issues
Create a protected Administrator account: The first thing to do when setting up a new machine is create the main user account and give it a name and icon. Your next step should be to add a password that will be required whenever you leave the computer unattended for more than, say, 15 minutes.
Add a Standard user account: You should use the primary account only when altering settings and installing/uninstalling programs. Set up a second account for other tasks. In Control Panel, User Accounts lets you add users, while ‘Change Account type’ lets you specify whether it’s a Standard or an Administrator account.
Restrict access: Password-protect your second user account and assign it limited access privileges. You’ll still be able to perform most tasks using this account but, crucially, if a virus worms its way on to your PC, it won’t be able to make any changes to the Registry or install diallers or keylogging tools.
Secure your web connection: The web itself poses the biggest threat to your PC. Going online with no security software in place is foolhardy at the very least; doing so at an insecure location, such as an open wireless network, is asking for trouble. Crank up the privacy, security and content settings in your browser.
Get free antivirus protection: If nothing else, install free antivirus and firewall software. Microsoft’s Security Essentials is free. Other free options include Avast and AVG. Keep up to date by allowing the software to search for new malware definitions when prompted.
Perform regular scans: Previously renowned for hogging system resources, today’s antivirus programs shouldn’t impact your day-to-day PC use. It’s prudent to perform a full scan of your PC every once in a while. This is best scheduled to run overnight or when you aren’t using the PC.
Use an effective firewall
A firewall forms a barrier between your PC and the outside world. It’s a bit like the membrane at the bottom of a pond, designed to prevent all the water from seeping out. You probably wouldn’t have noticed the slow leak of water – or data – which is why such a barrier is so valuable. Keylogging programs that get in via a back door such as an unsecured port or a less-than-robust email sentinel are often identified and hung out to dry by firewalls.
Windows has its own firewall in the form of Windows Defender, but you may prefer to use another. If so, deactivate the Windows one so they don’t have a showdown.
Although it can be useful to have a free trial of 30 days or longer for a well-known security suite preinstalled on your new PC, you’d do best to make a snap decision about whether it’s the security program you are going to depend on from now on.
If it is, buy the full version immediately. If it isn’t for you, choose another program and buy that instead (or use a free one such as AVG or Security Essentials). This way, you won’t fall into the common trap of thinking your computer is secure, only to find the trial has ended and your PC is infected.
Unencrypted wireless access
Wi-Fi networks and hotspots pose particular problems. Cheeky neighbours may piggyback your web connection, but an unencrypted router also leaves your PC vulnerable to attack and to being recruited as part of a botnet – a zombie army of infected PCs that could eventually form part of a distributed denial-of-service attack.
Older routers often come with a default blank or easy-to-guess password, such as ‘1234’ or ‘password’. Newer routers tend to have more rigorous security settings and use Wi-Fi protected access (WPA) rather than the older, easier-to-crack wired equivalent privacy (WEP) encryption. A new router will also let you distance your connection from the spectrum your neighbour uses.
Logging on to the free Wi-Fi at a hotspot makes perfect sense if you’re a student watching the pennies. It’s also very convenient to be able to check your email or Facebook to see what friends are up to over a frothy cappuccino. It’s just as convenient for web snoops. For them, Wi-Fi hotspots are fertile hunting grounds.
Bluetooth can also leave you open to data interception, so turn off this powerful short-range transmission service except when you actively require it. This is just as applicable to your mobile phone as to your laptop. If you’re a BlackBerry owner and need to send sensitive information, the end-to-end encryption of the BlackBerry Email Server is your safest bet.
In any case, we strongly suggest you don’t use a wireless hotspot for web transactions such as buying an item on eBay or checking your bank balance. A well-timed glance over your shoulder or the surreptitious snap of a cameraphone could be enough to compromise the privacy of your bank login details.
It takes time to familiarise yourself with a new PC or laptop, particularly if the operating system on which it runs is also new to you. Spend some time getting to know the security setup for routine tasks such as downloading programs. Are these automatically scanned, or is there an assumption that a download you initiate must be safe? Many of us blithely click the Ok or Continue button when prompted to check whether Windows should install a downloaded program. A decent web browser will actively check for the presence of malware, but you should also routinely check for rogue software using your installed security suite’s scanner.
As per our previous advice, you may need to log out of your everyday account and into the one you’ve set up with full Administrator rights to install anything. Don’t forget to switch back to the other account afterwards.
Plug it in
It’s all too easy to bypass your own security setup: simply plugging in a USB flash memory drive can do the trick. USB drives are incredibly useful, but they ought to come with a warning. Tales are rife of viruses being spread around the office after an employee plugged in a drive they brought into the office with them from home, where it wasn’t virus-scanned.
Once a virus finds its way on to a networked device, it can quickly infect anything with which it comes into contact or that is connected to anything that’s also plugged in or accessible. It’s little wonder that educational institutions often don’t allow students to plug in their own memory sticks and have stringent security software in place to prevent infections being transmitted this way.
And malware isn’t the only risk to worry about – USB drives also make you vulnerable to data theft. Get a security-enabled USB drive that you can access only with a password or a fingerprint, and your data will be safer. At least if you lose the device in the bar or leave it in the library, no one can steal your notes, even if you don’t end up getting the drive itself back. Secure memory drives such as an Ironkey or a Victorinox Swiss Army USB key provide reassurance and, in the case of the latter, double as useful tools for other tasks.
Beware of strangers
Our final two security tips are particularly relevant to younger PC users, but ‘stranger danger’ is also pertinent for adults.
Once you’ve set up your new PC or laptop you’ll want to start reaching out to friends. ‘Friending’ people on Facebook and chatting online can be fun, but be cautious about what you divulge – particularly if you have never met somebody in person.
It’s all too easy to give away information about where you live, when you were born and when you’re going away. Thieves and data miners thrive on such fodder, while luring kids into adult conversations is a well-documented danger.
Monitor your child’s web use by being present when they go online and use the parental controls in Windows and in Internet Explorer’s Internet Properties, Parental Controls settings menu to prevent them using instant-messaging clients when you’re not there.
As we outlined at the start of this guide, setting up separate user accounts for different family members can pay dividends here. A child’s user account that imposes time-of-day and content-suitability limitations, depending on their age and what you deem suitable, can lead to less anxious times and fewer arguments.