Everything you need to know about internet security

The internet is a fantastic thing, but having so many computers and devices connected leaves us vulnerable to a whole host of cyber-crimes and viruses. Fortunately there are many ways to ensure you are protected.

I am worried about being online—how do I stay secure?

Lots of people worry about their online security, and with good reason. It’s true that the internet can be a source of many scams—and there are always scare stories in the newspapers about viruses infecting machines and hackers accessing people’s personal information online.

So it would be easy to think that browsing the net is a dangerous activity. But staying safe online is the same as staying safe anywhere—take the right precautions from the start, use your common sense, and you can protect yourself from problems.

In the same way that you lock up your home and shut the windows when you go out, your computer needs some basic security to guard against intruders. As soon as you get connected, you need to put in place some security systems. But don’t think that you are on your own in trying to protect your internet device—your ISP, the computer manufacturers and software engineers are continually striving to improve security, and automatically build in protection to help you.

 

What do I need?

Your computer has three lines of defence (or should have). Each of them helps keep your computer safe from attack. The three systems are the firewall, antivirus software and an up-to-date operating system.

 

First, what’s a firewall?

If you are connected to the internet via a home broadband router, it will almost certainly have some protective software called a firewall built in. When you are online, you connect to other computers to access their services. Conversely, other computers on the internet can access services presented by your computer.

The firewall acts as a digital barrier, blocking access to your computer unless you allow it. It is a bit like a nightclub bouncer, standing between the computers in your home and the troublemakers of the net.

 

How does it work?

It monitors all communication coming from the internet, allowing outsiders to access only the services you tell it are okay. This generally means that they are blocked from accessing your computer unless they are responding to a request from it. Modern desktop and laptop computers generally have a firewall built in, too.

This allows you to protect yourself even if you are using a public WiFi network—for example, if you are using WiFi in a hotel or an airport departure lounge.

Firewalls also help thwart attacks by ‘worms’, a kind of malicious software that is spread from one device to another across a network. So it’s a good idea to ensure that your computer’s internal firewall is switched on (enabled), to reduce the chance of a worm spreading to all the devices that use your home broadband connection.

 

How do I check my firewall’s turned on?

You will find your firewall settings in the Control Panel (Windows) or System Preferences (Mac) in the Apple menu, under Security. Make sure the firewall is On.

As alternatives to the built-in firewall, there are a number of free and paid-for firewalls that you can download from websites—ZoneAlarm (zonealarm.com) and Comodo (comodo.com) are two internet-security companies that offer these.

These firewalls offer slightly better security than your built-in firewall but they are necessary only if you think your computer is at significant risk of attack. If you do install a different firewall, make sure that you have only one enabled on your computer; otherwise the firewalls will clash and not work effectively.

 

Does a firewall protect my computer against everything?

No, firewalls do a lot but they do not protect against a lot of malware—malicious software—including viruses and spyware (see below). That is why you also need to install antivirus software.

 

What does antivirus software do?

Good antivirus software helps to protect against viruses, Trojans and spyware as well as worms.

  • A virus is a software program that can spread from computer to computer like a disease. It infects your computer and can cause harm and destroy your files. Viruses are spread by opening infected files that you download from a website or receive via email.
     
  • A Trojan is a particular kind of virus that is designed to steal your personal information.
     
  • Spyware enters your computer and ‘spies’ on what you’re doing. It does this by, for example, logging the keys you type and thereby stealing your passwords and other personal information.

Before choosing any antivirus software, check that it is effective against viruses, Trojans, worms and spyware.

 

How do I get this software?

Antivirus software is produced by many companies. As well as blocking malware, it will scan your computer for existing viruses and remove them. There are many different antivirus software brands available to download free from the internet, including avast! Free Antivirus, AVG Antivirus Free and Panda Cloud Antivirus Free.

Make sure you download these from the official website, such as avast.com, avg.com and pandasecurity.com. If you prefer, you can buy antivirus software from a  high-street computer shop. Since new viruses are being created all the time, it is important to keep your antivirus protection updated. Most antivirus software updates automatically, so you shouldn’t need to worry about remembering to do this.

 

My friend says I don’t need antivirus software if I have a Mac. Is that true?

Macs are traditionally less vulnerable to attack. This is partly because fewer people have them—it makes sense for criminals to go after Windows computers because there are so many more of them that a virus could reach.

But that’s not to say that Macs aren’t at risk. It’s still a good idea to get antivirus software, and Mac users, like everyone else, should be sure to download software only from known sources to help keep their computers safe.

 

What’s an operating system, and why do I need it to be up to date?

The manufacturers are constantly striving to make their software as secure as possible—they pinpoint any weak points, and create updates to fix them. This means that the latest version of an operating system – the program that makes your computer run—is likely to be more secure than an older one. So make sure that you install any updates to your operating system when they become available.

 

How do I do that?

On a Mac or a PC, you’ll get pop-up messages on screen telling you that software updates are available, and you then just click OK to download them. To check whether updates are available in Windows, go to the Control Panel and find the Security section then click on Windows Updates to find the Check for Updates option. On a Mac, from the Apple menu select Software Update to check for updates.

 

What more can I do to make my home broadband secure?

It is vital to protect your broadband connection with a strong password.

This should be done for you by the ISP: routers always come with a preset password, and it’s usually a strong password (that is, a random mixture of upper- and lower-case letters and numbers or other characters). If it is not, then change it.

You have probably noticed a whole host of other WiFi networks come up on the list of WiFi connections available to your home computer. This is a list of your neighbours’ networks, and they can probably see yours, too. If the network is accessed by a password, it will have a little padlock symbol next to it—and only people who know the password will be able to access it.

So long as you password-protect it, your WiFi is relatively safe from hackers (people who use weaknesses in a computer system to gain access to its data)—and from opportunist neighbours who piggyback on your network and so use up your monthly data download allowance.

 

I have a strong password, is there anything else?

Make sure your computer is not set up to connect automatically to any available WiFi network. If it is, it could connect to networks other than your own—networks that you know nothing about, and that might be unsecure.

Not all computer systems allow automatic connection, but it’s worth checking that this option is disabled on your system.

In Windows, go to Network Connections from the Start menu and then Control Panel. Right-click on the Wireless Network Connection icon and click on Properties. Select the name of your router and then click on Advanced.

Choose the Access point (infrastructure) networks only tab and make sure the box that says Automatically connect to non-preferred networks is not ticked.

On a Mac, from the Apple menu go to System Preferences and select Network. Make sure that the Network Name lists your router, and that Ask to join new networks is ticked.

 

I am using a tablet, are there any security steps I should take?

Tablets and smartphones don’t usually have a firewall or antivirus software but have other precautions already in place—for example, iPhones don’t allow any software to be downloaded unless it is from the official App Store.

Whatever phone or tablet you have, it is wise to download only from the trusted marketplaces. It is also a good idea to download a specially designed security app for your phone—such as avast! Free Mobile Security—available from your app store.

 

I use the computer at the library, is that safe?

Don’t use a public computer for financial transactions, or to send emails with your bank details in them. You cannot know whether a hacker has accessed the machine and installed software that tracks your keystrokes.

Someone could do this, and gain access to all your passwords and usernames. It’s best to stick to general browsing only when you are on a computer that is publicly accessed. Always log out at the end of the session.

 

What about WiFi? Is it safe to use free WiFi when I am out and about?

That’s a good question. It’s certainly convenient to use WiFi but it is difficult to know whether a public WiFi connection is secure, so it is wise to take some precautions before you do so. And as with a public computer, it is best not to carry out financial transactions on a public WiFi network—save them until you are on your secured home connection.

If you do have to type in your credit card number, then check that you are using a secure website: check that the web address begins https rather than the usual http (the ‘s’ stands for ‘secure’).What

 

What do I need to do?

Here are some basic security steps to take before using WiFi:

  • First, go into the Settings menu and look at the WiFi settings to make sure your smartphone or tablet isn’t set up to connect automatically to free WiFi whenever it is available – look for an option to disable autoconnecting and turn it off. If you can’t see this option then it doesn’t exist and you’re safe. Otherwise you could be using free WiFi without even realising it, and without knowing the source of that free WiFi.
     
  • In a café or other reputable place, check the exact name of the WiFi network with staff. That way you know you are definitely connecting to the right one, and not a lookalike network set up by hackers to access your personal information (this is quite easily done). Even then, there is always a slim chance that a member of staff could also be a hacker – so you should still limit what you do in public.
     
  • If you are using a laptop, make sure your firewall is turned on when you’re using a public network as it will filter what is allowed to pass through the ‘wall’ from the internet to your device. Make sure that your antivirus software and your operating system are up to date.
     
  • Remember to use ‘strong’ passwords—ideally, a mixture of letters, numbers and characters – for any websites you use. Don’t use the same password for different sites – if one gets discovered, your other sites are vulnerable.
     
  • Disconnect from the WiFi if you don’t need to be online.

 

That’s all useful, is there anything else I can do to protect myself?

One important thing. If you have several devices you probably allow sharing of music, printers and other files between your devices when you are on your home network.

When using a public WiFi connection, you should disable these sharing settings. To do this, go to the Control Panel (Windows) or System Preferences (Mac) and untick all the sharing options.