10 Tips for Safe Computing

Today, we are more dependent on computers and the information that they store than ever before.  From spyware, viruses, and Trojans to identity theft and computer hardware malfunctions —any disruption can have a huge impact on our lives.  No matter how savvy the user, safe computing practices are a combination of physical protections using computer software and security settings and the secure actions of the user. You need both to make a difference. Below are 10 tips that will help you protect your computer and ultimately the information stored on it.

1. Keep your computer updated:

1.     In the evolving world of software viruses, it is essential that computer owners use anti-virus software and keep it up-to-date.  Most anti-virus software gives the user the ability to do automatic updates.

2.      Whether individuals choose to update their operating system software automatically or manually, we recommend making it a continuous process.  It is also important to keep other software on your computer updated.  Software updates often include essential bug fixes and security features that address existing vulnerabilities.

3.     Finally, enable the personal firewall on your computer. This will help to keep unauthorized people from snooping around your computer when it’s connected to the Internet.

2. Create strong, secure passwords

There is power in strong passwords.  We recommend passwords that contain at least 8 characters with a combination of letters, numbers and symbols.  Strong passwords are less likely to be hacked than very generic passwords.  Use creative pass-phases to avoid having to write down a password.  Do not share your passwords with anyone.

3. Download files legally

Along with the possibility of significant legal penalties, downloading music and movies from peer-to-peer networks can be harmful to your machine.  These downloaded files are sometimes riddled with viruses and spyware.

4. Keep personal information safe

Reduce your risk of identity theft.  Never share your personal information via email, no matter how official the email looks.  Official business that requires personal information should not happen via unsecured email.

5. Scan email attachments and validate links

In an effort to keep viruses off your machine, scan all attachments that are sent to you.  Viruses can lurk in emails from friends and family.  While you may be fooled about an email that contains a photo you would like to see from a friend, anti-virus software will know the difference.  If you receive a link in an email from a trusted source, hover over the link using your mouse and look in the bottom bar of your web browser to reveal the true URL and validate that the link is legitimate. This will ensure that you know where you are going on the Internet, and whether or not you want to go there.

6. Lock your computer

When leaving your computer unattended, physically lock it to prevent theft of the machine.  We also suggest that users lock the screen with a password to safeguard data.

7. Log off any public areas

Remember when using a public computer or network, it is just that…public.  Be sure that you completely log off  the site or machine when you are finished using it.  Users should be especially mindful to uncheck boxes that will remember users’ login information when logging into online services, such as email and bank accounts.

8. Back up important data

We have seen final papers vanish—hard drives crash and files become corrupt.  If you have important information that you cannot afford to lose, back it up.  We recommend that you store this information securely and even consider storing extra copies at another location.

9. Limit information on social media sites

People will post almost anything on social media site.  For many people, birth dates, anniversaries, addresses, phone numbers, and a lot of other personal information can be found on social media sites.  Protect yourself from identity theft and other scams by limiting what information you disclose online and who can see that information.

10. Avoid surfing websites that you don’t already know

Browsers are quickly becoming one of the larger vulnerabilities in computing. Adware and spyware are written specifically to exploit Internet Explorer and Firefox. So try and stick with the websites you trust.

While these steps are not foolproof, they will go a long way towards extending the life of your machine and protecting the valuable information contained on it.

Julie Myers is the Chief Information Security Officer at the University of Rochester.