Securing your computer and staying safe while you’re on the web is paramount to every computer user. In as much as computers provide a high degree of reliability, it also has drawbacks. So by taking few steps, you would be able to prevent yourself from cyber-threats and loss of vital information.
In this post, we are going to look at basic computer security and internet safety fundamentals so that you can have a better understanding of securing your computers and staying safe while you’re surfing the internet.
Table of Contents:
- Browsing On a Public Computer
- Automatic Updates
- Installing and Maintaining Antivirus Software
- Using Public Wi-Fi Safely
- Encrypting Files That Contain Sensitive Data
- Enabling Firewall
- Understanding Secure Websites
- Using Password Management Software
- Checking browser Settings
- Avoiding Phishing Scams
- Evaluating Links
- Reading Installation Instructions Carefully
- Unsubscribing From Email Subscriptions
- Regular Maintenance
- Enabling Two-Factor Authentication Logins
- Reviewing Site Privacy Settings
- Understanding Tracking Cookies
- Turning On Do Not Track Request
- Blurring Sensitive Data from Photos
- Risks in Sharing Explicit Photos
- Physical Protection of Computer
Browsing on a Public Computer
There are few extra considerations that you need to take to effect when you’re browsing on a public computer, and by that, I mean at an Internet Café, Library, or any computer that is used by different people.
The first thing is when you’re signing in to any of your accounts, make sure you uncheck the “Stay signed in” or “Keep me signed in” checkbox. A lot of times this box is checked by default, so when you fill in your username/email and password and login while the box is checked, the browser will save your login credentials, and the next person who uses that site with that computer will be signed in as you, or your username/email will automatically be populated into the login fields.
Secondly, there is a feature that all browsers have called “Private Browsing”. Whenever you’re using a public computer it is recommended to use this feature. Private browsing is a way of browsing the Internet and not saving particular pieces of information along the way. When you browse in a Private Window, the browser doesn’t save visited pages, searches, cookies and temporary files.
Private Browsing doesn’t make you anonymous on the Internet. Your employer or Internet service provider can still know what page you visit.
It’s a great thing to do and it’s a very good habit to get into when you’re using a public computer. And always never forget to sign out from your accounts before leaving.
If you, in any case, forget to activate private browsing, you can simply clear browser history and cookies from the browser before walking away to feel at least a bit comfortable that you’ve not left any traces of what you have done while you were using that public computer.
It is important to keep automatic updates on always. Microsoft usually releases security patches and updates for Windows on the second Tuesday of every month. It actually has a name called Patch Tuesday. These updates consist of virus definitions, operating system bug fixes and patches from security holes that have been discovered since the last update.
Keeping up to date with these security updates is the very first step to know how to stay safe on the internet and on your computer. It’s also a great skill to know how to manually update your computer especially when you’re using a computer that hasn’t been turned on for a while.
To update manually, make sure you’re connected to the Internet first and search for Windows Update, within the Windows Update control panel click Install updates. This might take a while depending on your internet connection or the number of updates to be downloaded.
Installing and Maintaining Antivirus Software
Every computer needs to have an Antivirus installed. It is designed to constantly scan files you download, open and accessible. Windows 7, 8 and 10 comes with a built-in malware protection software called Windows Defender or you can download Microsoft Security Essentials which is another free antivirus program from Microsoft.
You can also instead choose any other virus protection software that you prefer such as 360 Total Security, it depends on your personal preference as long as you’ve some sort of antivirus running. It’s also important that you only have one antivirus app that scans your computer in real-time. You will run into trouble if more than one is running because they could be trying to constantly access and scan the same file at the same time which could cause a conflict and that could slow down your computer.
To stay safer while you’re browsing on the Internet you might also need spyware, adware and other malware detection software, for this I highly recommend Malwarebytes. You can run this for free as a one-time spyware removal utility maybe if your system runs into trouble, but it’s worth purchasing the premium version to get extra protection, to keep it running and keep it up to date.
This won’t interfere with your existing antivirus, they work together to scan completely different things. It’s also important to not only have an antivirus app installed on your computer and doing real-time scanning, but you also need to run a full scan at least once a week especially if you’re always connected to the internet. You can manually do this with your chosen antivirus program.
Another way to protect your computer from malware is to take note of the following:
- Don’t download any software without investigating reviews from the download page
- Look out for strange emails containing suspicious links that ask you to click
- Avoid opening email attachments from unknown senders
- Avoid clicking fake ads that look like Windows dialogue boxes or banners
- Avoid P2P (Peer-to-Peer) file sharing like torrents
- Always scan removable media drives before using them
Using Public Wi-Fi Safely
More and more free Wi-Fi are available to us and there are some considerations that you should be made when connecting to them.
When you connect to a network you’re prompted as to whether be a home, work or public network. Be sure to select public network so that these particular rules take effect; both Network discovery and File and Printer Sharing will automatically turned off. This is to make sure that none of your files are available for anyone to find on the network. You can manually change this setting in the Network and Sharing Center.
Consider using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) connection when you’re on a public network, this helps encrypt your data while you’re connected to it. You can download a VPN app for your PC like TunnelBear. This can work on a laptop and also on small devices.
Finally, when you connect to a Wi-Fi network, you will get a choice to connect automatically to that network, you would want to uncheck that box so you know you’re in control of what networks you connect to and when you connect to them.
Encrypting Files That Contain Sensitive Data
You can encrypt an entire hard drive or just certain files you want to keep for your eyes only.
Windows 7 and above has a built-in encryption software called Bitlocker, which you can use to encrypt an entire hard drive or flash drive.
There is also an open source software called Anvi Folder Locker which you can use to encrypt files and folders.
To protect your computer from Internet threats you should also consider having a running Firewall on your computer. A firewall is used to protect your network computers from intruders. Windows comes with a built-in Firewall but there are third party Firewall applications available. One of the most popular open source firewall application is pfsense for network security.
You can find the Windows Firewall program by searching for it in the search box.
In this age we can buy almost anything on the internet, we also perform online banking and fill out forms that require us to first put in our personal information before we can submit the form.
It’s very important to be able to look critically at every website that wants your information. These websites needs to be held at high standard of security to be able to take your data and pass it through various internet ports.
Here are some ways that you can tell if a site is secure before entering credit card data, social security number or any piece of data you don’t feel safe sending over an unsecured connection.
What constitutes a secure connection? One that encrypts your data before sending it, the data is encrypted at your end, sent through the internet and then decrypted on the other side once the form has been submitted safely. Always check whether the page you’re about to put your personal details is having a padlock icon on the address bar and the ‘http’ has changed to ‘https’ the “S” means “Secure”.
That tells you that the website is using SSL (Secure Socket Layer), it doesn’t only secure your data but also verify that the website you’re on is who it claims to be by a special certificate.
Using Password Management Software
It’s not easy for some people to remember all their passwords nowadays and more often we are required to create a complex password or change it regularly.
When you’re installing 1Password for example, it will prompt you to install a browser toolbar button, which will always be running, when you’re trying to login to a website it ask you whether you want to store the login details to the vault.
You will need to enter the vault master password to be able to do this. When the login details are added, anytime you want to login to that website, all you need to do is to click on the 1Password icon on the browser and then enter the vault master password and then click on the login details that you want to use.
Now all you need to remember is “One Password” and that’s the password to unlock your vault. When the vault is unlocked you will see all the logins that you’ve saved.
I highly recommend using some sort of password management software for some people, not only it is more secure than writing passwords down somewhere but it can also save you hours of frustration when you can’t get your work done because of a forgotten password.
To learn how to easily remember your passwords check out this post.
Checking browser Settings
Always make sure you run the most current version of your chosen browser, each new version comes with more security options and bug fixes for previous security leaks.
Find out which version of your browser you’re running, and then check for updates if it is available. Mozilla Firefox and other browsers are set to automatically check for updates.
Avoiding Phishing Scams
Let’s go over some common types of phishing emails that you may get so that you will have the skills to know how to deal with these emails. It’s called a phishing email because the email is phishing for your information. They are trying to see what kind of information or clicks they can get out of you.
Look in to email messages properly before clicking on any links. If an email is claiming to be from a reputable company, check to see whether the email address used matches the company name or website address.
For example, if someone claims to be from Faalen Technologies and there email address looks like this email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org then you can feel suspicious. It should at least be something like this email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org in most cases if it a reputable company or organisation.
Check for grammar and the use of proper punctuation, it is good to know that legitimate companies will be very much concern about grammar before sending an email to a client.
If an email is containing a ‘Call to Action’ link that is asking you to click on a link, make sure before clicking you evaluate the link. Place your mouse pointer on the link and look at the bottom left hand side of your browser to check where it is linked to. If the link looks suspicious do not click on it.
Reading Installation Instructions Carefully
There are two strategies you can use when downloading and installing software. The first one is to make sure you’re downloading the right file and the second strategy is to make sure you’re not installing any other unwanted software at the same time.
To make sure you’re downloading the right file, look closely and carefully at the download buttons so that you would be able to differentiate the actually download button from the ad buttons. You might see three download buttons but only one of them will download the file and the rest might be advertisement buttons that could take you to another site.
During installation you’ve to make sure you read the installation instructions carefully instead of just clicking next on every stage of the installation to avoid installing additional piece of software that you didn’t ask for. You may want to uncheck some check boxes. So, it’s very important to read these steps before clicking next, a lot of times this is the major way that most unwanted software gets on your computer because we put it there without realising.
Unsubscribing From Email Subscriptions
You may also want to unsubscribe from some unwanted email notifications and newsletters that fills up your email inbox.
You can unsubscribe to these newsletters manually by opening the email and looking at the bottom of a newsletter for the unsubscribe link or use a website called Unroll.Me to keep your inbox free by giving you a list of email subscriptions that you can go through and unsubscribe to the ones you don’t need.
Regular Computer Maintenance
The same way a car needs oil changes regularly, there are some things you can do to your computer to give it a regularly maintenance it needs to make sure you stay safe.
The first thing is to delete your browser cache, your temporary files, your browsing history and cookies. Not only doing this periodically will speed up things considerably but it will also delete potential web tracking cookies, clear your web history and it will also help in any virus scan go much quicker. You can clear the browser cache within your browser options.
I recommend installing a software utility called CCleaner. This tool will help you clear browser cache, cookies, temporary files, stop applications that slows down boot-up time and a lot more things.
Another maintenance is to keep checking on your Programs and Features list to check whether you will see any unwanted application that you didn’t know is on your computer. When uninstalling you’ve to be very carefully before uninstalling a useful software.
Finally, you should have some sort of backup plan for your computer. You will need to think about what would happen to your important files if something happens to your computer, this is why it’s always good to have some sort of backup plan for your files in place. You can use an external hard drive or you can copy your important documents to a cloud service like Microsoft OneDrive or Google Drive. Check out this post to learn how to backup files online.
Enabling Two-Factor Authentication Logins
In this section we’ll discuss something called two-step verification or sometimes call two-factor authentication to as many services you subscribe to that offers it.
Two-step verification offers an additional layer of security by having you login to a site normally using your password and then having the site send you a code directly to your mobile phone and then you enter that code into a web browser and then you begin using the services, that’s the second step.
You won’t be prompted again on that particular device but should anyone try to login as you on any other machine they will need your phone also, so there’s two-factor at play, here your regular password and the code on your phone.
You can add two-step verification to your Gmail account by clicking on your profile picture and then accounts then the security tab, you will see the 2-Step Verification Setup. Other websites like Facebook, Outlook.com and many others are also providing it.
Reviewing Site Privacy Settings
From time to time you should check all your social networks and go through security and privacy settings again just to see if there is any new feature or if your situation has changed and you might want to change your privacy settings for whatever reason you have.
Understanding Tracking Cookies
Throughout this post I have talked about cookies without going into what they are, they are a big part of the web browsing experience so let’s go over them now.
A cookie is a name given to a small text file that’s place on your computer by the designers of a website when you visit that site.
Cookies do things like track how you visit a site and follow links all over the site, where you go and how you navigate them. They can save your login information, or settings that you make while you’re there or any selections you might have chosen.
A cookie itself is just a text file, there is no code on them and they can’t give you viruses on your computer. In fact, the cookie itself only contains a few pieces of information, the website that stores the cookie, the date the cookie expires which can be set by the site itself and numbers which are meaningful to the website once it reads back the cookie.
Turning On Do Not Track Request
Now that I talked about tracking cookies and what they do, I can tell you about something called a “Do Not Track Request”. This is a feature in a web browser that you can set to tell websites that you don’t want to be tracked. Now there is one thing about “Do Not Track Request” it is a request, meaning the site doesn’t necessarily have to obey that request, you just telling that site you would rather not be tracked.
Is good to turn it on though if this is something that you don’t want, meaning if don’t want a certain ad banner following you around every time you visit a certain site.
Again it’s up to the website whether or not they want to obey your request not to be tracked but it is one step in minimising the amount of ad banners that you get while you’re visiting the web. You can find this option in your browser settings.
Blurring Sensitive Data from Photos
In this age, social networks make it possible for us instantaneously upload photos from our lives to all our friends in the world. Most photos you upload, social media viewers will focus on the focal point of the photo. But you don’t want anyone with sharp eyes to notice the smaller details.
It’s important to blur out some details of a photo before posting it on social media to avoid people seeing the details of a photo that you don’t want. To do this you can use any photo editing application you already have and then look for the Blur option.
Risks in Sharing Nude Photos
The sending of nude or explicit photos on social media can lead to a frustrating life if your private photos are leaked and published on the open internet.
A terminology called Sexting is a common practice among teenage boys and girls since the emergence of Camera phones and Smartphones. The popularity of these devices has immensely changed the way we do things.
What you need to understand is that whenever you press the send button there is no way of retrieving that file again.
Here are some reasons why people do this act:
- Curiosity, teens may be curious as to what others look like when they are naked and also easily aroused by nudity.
- Having a long distance or online relationship with someone and want to have a sexual relationship with them.
- Feel proud of your body and want to share it with other people.
- Doing it to prove that you are sexy.
- Be in love with a person and trust them completely and feel like it’s okay. Some thinks that sexting spice up a relationship.
- Feel like ‘everyone else is doing it’ and want to fit in with friends – especially if they are boasting about sending or having nude photos on their mobile phone.
- Thinking that you ‘owe’ your boyfriend or girlfriend or made to feel guilty if you don’t do what they ask you for and many other reasons…
Popular Apps Used for Sexting
Apps like Snapchat, Tinder, Kik, Whatsapp are commonly used for sexting. These apps enable you to send text, audio, picture and video messages. Some sexters prefer using the Snapchat app to send nude photos, because this enables you to set the amount of seconds the photo can be viewed before it will self-destruct. But the irony is; the receiver can quickly snapshot the photo and keep it.
Methods Used in Sexting
Most sexters would prefer being alone when doing it and others have no time and place for it. They have their own style of words when sexting with their partners and others prefer using emojis J to chat. They start with the mind and then to the physical body, arousing sexual anticipation.
Think before you send…
Before hitting the send button; think twice, think of the consequences that could happen. Your photo or video can end up somewhere you don’t expect, like a social media site or even on a porn site. Some young people blackmail their partners or former partners by threatening to release private images of them, if they don’t do what they asked for. Most sexters would share the message with their friends and those friends could also share it with another friends and so on until it comes back to you.
Physical Protection of Computer
Here are some things that you can do to physically protect your computer. When you have a desktop computer it’s likely you won’t be moving it around but there are some safeguards to protect it from physical access.
- By all means make sure no one knows your password. My networking teaching once told me “If two people know a password then it’s no longer a password”. If someone knows your password they could access your computer while you’re away.
- Secondly, always lock your computer when you’re walking away from it. To easily and quickly lock your computer you can press Windows key + L. To unlock it you need to enter your password again. If you want to allow others to use your computer, I recommend creating another account or maybe activating the Guest Account in Windows.
There are few more additional points to consider if you have a laptop computer, because laptop computers can be easily stolen.
To physically protect your laptop, the most important thing that you can do is to make sure that it is physically touching you if you’re in a public place. In some cases you might need to carry along your laptop whenever you’re stepping away.
I just hope these security and safety measures discussed in this post were helpful and would be highly considered. Don’t forget to subscribe to this blog and ask questions using the comment box if by anyway you’ve something to ask related to this post. See you on the next post.
Ousman Faal [Digital Vigilante] is a Tech Entrepreneur & Digital Skills Trainer who teaches both in the classroom and online. He has experience in various technologies and likes sharing it with others. Ousman has published 144 articles on this blog. He is the CEO of Faalen Technologies and Skills.gm.