Thursday, October 29, 2009

Safe computing

I'm a computer person.  I build my own computers from scratch.  I run new operating systems for fun.  I'm often called on to fix someone else's computer or help with a computer problem.  In this article I'm going to get down my most important advice.  All of this is aimed at people running Windows.

1. Make sure that your copy of Windows is legal.
You should have a sticker with the Windows license key on it.  If you bought the computer from a major manufacturer then that sticker might be on the computer itself.  If you chose an off-brand then the sticker should have been on the envelope that the Windows CD came in.

If you don't have a license key then save your money and buy one.

2. Get up to date.
If you are running Windows '98 or 2000 then it is time to  upgrade.  Windows XP, Vista, or 7 are the only acceptable versions of Windows to be running these days.  If your hardware won't run XP then you need new hardware.  I'm seeing nice boxes with Vista or 7 for $400ish.

3. Find somewhere to back up your data.
Buy a USB flash drive.  Or an external hard drive.  Or if you have more than one computer at home share a directory on each one and copy your files onto the other PC across the network.  This is what I do with Christy's and my PCs.  I copy my files over to her PC and her files over to mine.

Make a backup about once a month.  And make a backup right before you do anything big, like Windows Update or installing new hardware.

4. Run Windows Updates and turn on Automatic Updates.
Don't run Windows Update if you don't know you have a legal license key.  Install all Critical and Recommended updates.  Reboot and play with your computer for a bit after the update to make sure everything is working.

Then turn on Automatic Updates.  Don't do this on a production server, but Automatic Updates seems safe enough on a desktop PC, especially at home.

5. Install Avast Antivirus  Download the free version and install it.  Accept all of the defaults and let it run.  It will want to do a full system scan.  Let it do it.

6. Install both Firefox and Chrome
Firefox is here: (you will get redirected to the current download page.)
Chrome is here:

Use Firefox as your default browser for just surfing the web and playing around.  Use Chrome for secure stuff, like your web-based email and logging in to your bank accounts.

And DO NOT USE CHROME FOR ANYTHING ELSE.  It isn't that Chrome isn't safe.  It's very safe.  It's one of the best browsers around.  You just want to isolate all of the risky behavior from all of your sensitive information.  The internet is a very unsafe place.  We're going to do some stuff to keep you safe in Firefox, but there is no reason to run any unnecessary risks.

7. Install & configure security add-ons in Firefox
In Firefox, go to Tools and then Add-Ons.  Click the 'Get Add-ons' icon and then the link to 'Browse All Add-ons'.   That is going to open a new tab in your Firefox browser.  On that page search for and install these add-ons:
Web of Trust (WOT)
Adblock Plus

There hundreds of other add-ons that you are welcome to browse and try out.  One warning: installing lots of add-ons will slow your browser down.  So if you find a few you want to try go ahead.  Play with them, and if you don't like them uninstall them before you install any more.

Also, I tried BetterPrivacy and found that the cons outweighed the pros.  I wouldn't recommend that one unless you cannot run NoScript and Adblock Plus for some reason.

After they are installed close and then re-o[en Firefox.  You will get a pop-up window or tab with preferences for each of those.  You can play with each to decide how you want them configured.  I'll make notes on each to tell you how I have them configured:

* Temporarily allow top-level sites by default, and set it to 'Base 2nd level Domains'.  (Turn this preference off if you plan to surf into the dangerous parts of the net like hardcore porn, 4chan, or audio/video piracy forums.)
* Automatically reload affected pages when permissions change.
* Show the status bar icon.
* Do not show the notification when scripts are blocked.

NoScript will appear as a blue capital S on a white background on the status bar at the bottom right of your Firefox browser.  There will be a red circle and line through it on top of the S when the page has scripts blocked.  When you see that circle and slash you can click on it and it will tell you where the various scripts are coming from, and you can allow them.  You can also right-click on an object or space on the page, and you will see 'No Script' in the options.  So if you are on a website you trust and something isn't working you can choose to allow scripts from one or more of the domains listed there.

If you are on YouTube the videos won't work until you allow ''.  That's one of YouTube's servers, and it is safe to allow permanently.

On lots of other pages you will see '', '', '', and lots of others.  The vast majority of this is scripts and tools that tell advertisers who you are and let them track you.  Do not allow those.  My rule of thumb is to pull up the main web page of any site listed here that is questionable.  Then decide what they are likely doing and whether or not you want them to do it, before you allow them.  For instance, of you go to you will get a pop-up warning from Web of Trust telling you that the site has a poor reputation and recommending that you close the tab.  Close the tab.  It's big brother tracking you.  Seriously.

Web of Trust (WOT)
Allow '' in NoScript.  :-)  It is safe to allow permanently.  The page will refresh.  There are several tabs at the top: 'Ratings', 'Warnings', 'Searching', 'Popup', and 'Advanced'.
* Check everything.
* I disabled the 'Child Safety' warning and turned the 'Trustworthiness' down one level.  I know when I'm surfing to pages that might have child unsafe stuff, so I don't want to see those warnings.  But I want to know when others have started to raise questions about the trustworthiness of a site.  I will not ever enter any data or buy anything from a site with a poor trustworthiness rating, but I might surf around the main page a little.

Take all of the defaults on the other pages.

Adblock Plus
Subscribe to 'EasyList (USA)' and take all of the defaults.

8. Flash, Shockwave, and QuickTime.
After you have installed Chrome and Firefox you will need to install (or reinstall) the Flash, ShockWave, and QuickTime browser plug-ins.  ShockWave is optional.  You can skip it if you don't like to play silly little games in your browser--that's all its used for any more.

Flash & ShockWave:
Go to and click the icons to download these.  (I can't link to the download pages because they keep moving them.)

Download the free version without iTunes unless you have an iPod/iPhone.

9. Think before you install other stuff.
Think twice before you install anything else.  Seriously.  Don't go downloading random stuff and installing it on your computer.  If you don't know the company that produced whatever it is, then Google them and read an article or two about them.  If someone else has written some blog posts about how their software is spyware, then don't install it!

When you run an installer and you get installation options, always click for the advanced installation options or whatever they call it.  Read through the things that are being installed.  I refuse to install anything that has a browser toolbar that I cannot choose to not install.  Browser toolbars are cheap gimmicks that allow advertisers to track you and profile you even if you have NoScript and Adblock Plus installed.  And they slow your browser down.

That's the big stuff.  Feel free to comment if you have a question or need help with something.

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