How Safe Is My Data?
by: Jeremy Trogg
There are quite a few factors that dictate how safe the data is on your computer. In defining "safety", we can either talk about it being safe from virus attack, safe from system damage, or safe from intrusion.
Each topic is an article unto itself so we will only talk about intrusion here. Intrusion, the act of someone that you don't know who gains access to your computer without your permission, is on the rise. That's the bad news.
The good news is that the vast majority of hackers are not sophisticated enough to get into your system if you employ a few precautions.
If you are a VP at a local bank and people know who you are, then you might have a few of the better hackers trying to get into your system so that they can try to get into the bank's data. Otherwise, lets face it... there are too many easy prey out there for them to bother with a modestly protected computer.
What hackers are looking for
Honestly... there are no hackers out there that are looking to steal your latest great novel, your tax records, or even your latest digital pictures of the grandkids.
In fact, if you are like 99.9% of Americans, there is nothing at all on your computer that a stranger would really be interested in. You may now want certain things to be available to the public, but that doesn't infer that anyone else has any interest.
Hackers are more interested in gaining access to your computer and using it for other purposes.
If a hacker can gain access and use your Internet access, then they can use your machine to launch other attacks on other computers and keep themselves pretty well hidden.
There are certain applications that take days to months to run a series of processes on even the fastest computer. But if a hacker can gain access to 1000 computers and utilize their combined processing power, an process that would take a month on a single computer could complete the operation in less than an hour.
Protecting your computer
Keeping your computer up to date isn't as hard as it might sound. Much of it can even be done over the Internet.
Update the operating system
Regardless of which operating system you use, if it is a Microsoft system such as Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows ME, Windows 2000, or Windows XP, Microsoft has an online utility that allows you to upgrade your system at no charge to you.
In fact, you don't even have to know what operating system (or OS) you are using to take advantage of this capability.
The later operating systems have better security built into them than the earlier ones, but all will be able to access the online patches that Microsoft offers. To update your Microsoft operating system, simply go to http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com and click on "Product Updates".
Follow the instructions and Microsoft will not only determine what operating system you are using, it will find out what security holes you have in your OS and will automatically download and install those patches for you. You will probably have to restart your machine as soon as that is done.
Regardless of which internet service provider (ISP) you use (AOL, MSN, Prodigy, cable access or DSL company) you should also install a firewall. Some internet service providers claim that they have a firewall built in, but the ones that I have seen are very ineffective if they are there at all.
Simply put, a firewall is a piece of software that stops intruders from accessing your computer. It sets up rules that allow you to access the Internet, but doesn't allow others to access your computer from the outside.
There are several great firewalls out there right now. Some are free, but for the sake of computer security, it's probably best to go the route of a known package that you pay for. For the money, I recommend Norton's Internet Security, available from Symantec.
You can download it if you want and are familiar with download procedures, but I highly recommend that you purchase the CD version from your local computer store and install it through your CD drive.
For about $60, you can get your computer up to speed and give it a very decent level of security.
Trojans and other funky animals
Sometimes an intrusion comes from the inside out. If you have accidentally downloaded a virus or someone has gained access to your machine, it is possible that you have a Trojan on your machine.
A Trojan is aptly named because much like the stories of Homer, the Trojan is surreptitiously put onto your computer and then it acts behinds the scenes.
Once in place, the Trojan can carry on all sorts of activities including sending information out of your computer or creating a hole in a firewall that allows someone else to have outside access to it.
Trojans can be a little tricky to get rid of. But once they are found, they are generally pretty easy to wipe out... sneaky and nasty but not very strong.
Antivirus programs can often find and eliminate viruses and Trojans (more info). Occasionally one will slip by and I have used a piece of software by MooSoft that was originally built to find and destroy Trojans. Best of all, you can get a free trial on the software and clean your computer long before the offer expires.
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