Basic Computer Security and Privacy

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The issues of privacy and anonymity on the internet are more relevant today than ever before.  We use the internet in ways we could not have imagined 20 or 30 years ago.  From banking, to news gathering, to social networking, to professional activities, to medical issues – we use the internet for all of it.  As we use it we are being tracked, recorded, hacked, and turned into a commodity for corporate gain.    Police and governments use our internet activity to help with criminal investigations.  If one is not careful on the internet their life could be ruined in just a few mouse clicks.  I’m concerned about how much we are tracked and spied on.  On this page I would like to put forth a few ideas about how to help maintain your privacy and maybe some anonymity as well.

The computers and smartphones we use today do amazing things and are very convenient.  People love integrating and linking their data from computers, tablets, and smartphones.  The technology can tell us how to get where we want to go, remind us to be somewhere, let us control our banking from home or away from home.  However, all this comes with a price.  The price for convenience is that you sacrifice your privacy and security.  The more you use all the cool features of your phone and computer the more personal data you spew around the web.  More personal data floating in cyberspace means more opportunities for companies, criminals, and governments to steal or harvest that data and use it in ways you may not appreciate.  In this section I’ll cover some basic ways to make your computing environment safer and more private.

Basic Security

You don’t need to inconvenience yourself too much or break web sites just to stay safe in your daily web surfing.  Here are a few tips anyone can easily do.  Since most people use Windows I’ll approach things with that in mind.  I recently bought a Windows 10 computer.  Here are some steps I took as soon as it was up and running.

1.  Create a Standard User Account (no Admin privileges). You can get to User Accounts through the Control Panel or Settings Menu.  If an attacker does compromise your session he only has Standard rights and will not be able to make Administrative changes to the computer.

2.  The default privacy settings for Windows 10 are horrible.  You will want to adjust these settings right away.  Here are some sites with good information on how to adjust those settings and protect your privacy when using Windows 10.

http://lifehacker.com/how-to-configure-windows-10-to-protect-your-privacy-1716204024

http://www.techrepublic.com/article/windows-10-violates-your-privacy-by-default-heres-how-you-can-protect-yourself/

http://www.pcworld.com/article/2971725/windows/how-to-reclaim-your-privacy-in-windows-10-piece-by-piece.html

 

3.  Install the Chrome Browser or Firefox Browser and don’t let it store sensitive passwords.  Chrome is a good one to use in my opinion and that is what I’ll show here.

4.  Disable certain plugins like flash by default.  This can be done from the Chrome Content Settings under the Privacy setting.  In Chrome just find the link to Settings and go from there.  While there you can also disable third party cookies.  To enable flash as needed just right click and run the plugin.

Chrome Settings 1

 

Chrome Settings 2

5.  Install HTTPS Everywhere to force sites to use https connection when available.  This gives you an encrypted connection between your computer and the site you are visiting so no one can see the contents of what you are viewing or downloading.  Also add Privacy Badger from the EFF.

Install Google Analytics Opt-out.

6.  My personal recommendation is to install and run an anti-virus program.  Norton is one I like and is no where near the resource hog it used to be.

7.  Use a more privacy friend search engine – like DuckDuckGo or Startpage.  Google and Bing collect tons data from your searches for their own purposes.  If you wonder why search engines and email are free services it is because the Googles of the world harvest your information for advertising purposes as well as convenience and efficiency.

8.  Consider installing Malwarebytes Anti-Exploit.  This can help shield browsers and other programs from vulnerabilities in their code.  Hopefully, this can help prevent you from being the victim of malware exploits.  See their site for details.

9.  Consider upgrading to Windows 10 Professional and enable Bitlocker.  This will enable you to encrypt your entire hard drive and keep your encryption key off of Microsoft servers.  This is especially important if you have a laptop.  Use a strong password that is easy to remember to avoid brute force attacks (see item 14).  I did not know this initially but Bitlocker used 128 bit AES encryption by default.  That is nice but not good enough in my opinion.  Here is a link that tells you how to change the 128 bit default to 256 bit encryption – http://www.howtogeek.com/193649/how-to-make-bitlocker-use-256-bit-aes-encryption-instead-of-128-bit-aes/

10.  If you want an alternative to Bitlocker for encrypting flash drives and file folders consider installing Veracrypt to encrypt specific folders and flash drives.  Veracrypt is not difficult to use and is free.  There is no excuse for not having important files and folders encrypted.  Find an encryption product you like and use it.

11.  Install CCleaner or BleachBit to clean up your computer.  Deleting files is not enough.  They can are still easily recoverable with the right software.  These cleaners can “shred” the files by overwriting them numerous times to make recovery much more difficult if not impossible.

Cleaner1

Cleaner 2

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Cleaner4

 

12.  Encrypt your swap file and clear it on exit.

13.  Many malware infections occur because people click on dangerous email attachments.  Good email practices are essential to keeping you safe on the internet.  Beware of PDF files from people you don’t know!  When it comes to email be paranoid all the time.  This is another reason I like having a good anti-virus program on my computer.  For some good email tips go here:

https://www.diproductsite.com/security_microsite/fraudprevention.html

14.  One of the biggest problems with account security today is poor passwords.  A good password cracking tool (available for free off the internet) can crack a poor password very quickly.  You will do yourself a huge favor if you create a 8 – 12 character password (no names, birthdays, or other easy to guess info) and use it to log into your Operating System as well as a good password manager.   A password manager allows you to manage different passwords for all kinds of sites.  It will also automatically generate secure passwords so you don’t have to think them up.  That enables you to vary passwords from site to site and change them frequently.  It is a bad idea to use one password for everything.  There are many choices out there so shop around.  They can also sync across devices so you can enjoy secure passwords and site access from your computer, phone, or tablet.

15.  Keep your Operating System and programs patched and up to date!  Many systems are running outdated and upatched software and are vulnerable to exploits.  Many exploits rely on unpatched software.  Exploits for know vulnerabilites can be found all over the net and downloaded for free by hackers.  This is an easy way to protect your compouter and costs you nothing.

16.  Don’t forget, BACK UP YOUR DATA.  It is amazing how many smart people forget this step.  You can back up locally, but offsite backup services can protect your data against criminals who might steal your devices, against fire or flood, or against any physical loss of your device.  Crashplan offers good service and a good price. Check them out if you are looking for offsite backup.  Ransomware is a growing threat and it can really ruin your day.  Why take the risk of not backing up automatically and offsite?

These simple steps should get you off to a good start.  Remember, they don’t hide your IP so you are not anonymous. The EFF also publishes a lot of useful information for maintaining your privacy  on the internet.  Their site is definitely worth a look.  Next I’ll take a look at Paranoid mode and Extremely Paranoid mode for those who like to surf the seedier side of the internet.

Police Tips From The EFF