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 Inside Out - Yorkshire & Lincolnshire: Monday October 4, 2004


Person in front of a computer
Following our guidelines will help protect yourself when you use your computer

Paul Grout's case of the internet taking over his life is a rare one, but every computer user should be aware of security. There are some simple ways to protect yourself on the 'net and in the office, to make life much harder for the hackers.

Don't forget that Paul's situation, although awful, was very rare and shouldn't stop you from using the internet or your work PC. It should just make you more aware of the potential dangers.

Computer expert Gary O'Leary-Steele tells Inside Out some ways that you can become more secure on your PC.

Starting up

One of the first ways to protect yourself is by setting passwords. As Paul Grout's case showed, being blasé about your password can be a big mistake.

There are two things to consider when dealing with passwords. Firstly make it tough for someone to work out. Don't use any words from the English dictionary; instead use a combination of letters and numbers in what appears to be a random order.

Gary O'Leary-Steel
Gary O'Leary-Steele is a "white hacker" who works to combat viruses and security breaches

Secondly, change it as often as you can.

"Changing your password as regularly as it is feasible is the text book answer," says Gary O'Leary-Steele, but he also warns of sharing your password.

"Never give out your password to anyone unless it is absolutely necessary," he says. "You never know who is within earshot."

Certainly when using work computers you may be relying on your Information Technology (IT) manager to keep you safe, but don't assume this is always the case - take it upon yourself to keep your information current and secure.

However, Gary warns against taking it too far. "Don't start to install your own protection software on a work PC as this could severely compromise the network," he says.

If you are concerned about computer security at work, talk to your IT manager.

Staying in touch

Almost any internet user will use the technology to keep in touch with work colleagues, family and friends.

Jargon Buster

Hacker: A highly skilled computer user who breaks through security systems, often to gain access to personal files

White hacker: a hacker who uses his skills to thwart the efforts of other hackers

Firewall: A barrier used to keep hackers out of your computer system

Messenger: A chat application allowing users to chat in 'real time'

Windows: Microsoft's operating system, which is the most popular in the world, other systems include Macintosh, DOS and UNIX

Chatroom: A pre-setup area where users can 'chat' to multiple participants in real time

Encrypted: Information that has been 'scrambled' so that it is indecipherable to outside parties

Paypal: A way of transferring money over the Internet, whereby you set up your own 'account' to move money from

Virus: A file containing malicious code which is capable of attaching itself to disks or other files without the user knowing. Some viruses damage files and computer systems

Worm: A computer programme that replicates, but unlike viruses, does not infect other computer program files. Worms can create copies on the same computer, or can send the copies to other computers via a network

Emails are the most common form of communication but you should be aware of their limitations. Most emails are sent un-encrypted, which means potentially any hacker could get hold of them.

Normal users on the internet wouldn't be able to see other people's emails very easily but a hacker certainly could.

Gary suggests remaining aware of what content you are sending via email. "The true answer is that if it's confidential don't send it via email.

"Think of it like sending a letter on the back of a postcard. If you wanted it to remain private you just wouldn't do it," he says.

Instant chat software packages, such as Windows Messenger, are common, quick ways to keep in touch.

Messenger now comes as standard on any Windows operating system.

Again, Messenger is un-encrypted, so be aware of what information you are passing through the system although Gary says it would be unlikely you would be "hacked".

"Messenger is one of those things where information is travelling between one user to another, therefore the hacker would need to be already in one PC (which had been hacked already) or between point A and point B.

"It isn't impossible and Messenger certainly can be hacked, but it's not something many people would be able to do," he says.

However there was one recent scam where hackers were using the "file exchange" option on Messenger to compromise the recipient PC.

With both email and other communication software like Messenger it is important that you never open attachments you aren't expecting or from people you don't know.

Money matters

A recent survey carried out by the Association for Payment Clearing Services found that one in 10 credit card transactions are now carried out over the internet

There is no doubting the popularity of buying online and generally it is fairly safe to do, but there are some ways to limit the risk.

Padlock symbol on a webpage
The 'padlock' symbol is always found in the bottom right hand corner of a secure page

Always make sure you can see the "padlock" symbol at the bottom of the webpage before you enter any payment or personal details.

This symbol is an internationally recognised sign that you are in a secure area and any information will be encrypted before it is sent on.

Secure pages will also change from the standard http:// prefix to https://.

Always try to use well known and trusted companies when buying online and avoid giving out any personal information on a site you haven't checked out first.

Organisations such as "Paypal" are generally a safer way to buy from smaller businesses online as they ensure only the correct amount of money is taken from your account, which helps cut down fraudulent transactions.

It's not just buying online that we delve into though, internet banking has become a quick and easy way of managing money for many people.

Internet banking is overall very secure, however recent scams have emerged where hackers send emails, apparently from your bank, asking for personal details.

When bank users then send their details to their "bank" the hacker takes over their account.

All banks maintain that they will never send any banking requests via email so never reply and give out any personal information. Some banks will email promotional offers and advertisements for products, but it will never ask for any personal details to be sent back.

Crafty characters

Viruses are one of the biggest threats to home users as they can sneak up and wreak havoc seemingly out of the blue.

The only way to protect yourself from viruses or worms is to ensure you have good anti-virus software on your PC. There are many different versions on the market but the key with any brand you use is to update it regularly.

Hand on keyboard
New ways to penetrate computer systems are being devised by hackers every day

Hackers create new viruses or worms on a constant basis, and although there are "white hackers" who work to foil the attempts of their "black" counterparts on an equally constant basis, you won't receive the benefit of that unless you have the latest version of the anti-virus software.

Most updates are available from the supplier's website so make sure you keep up to date with the latest "virus fix" available.

Operating systems such as Microsoft Windows XP also need updating regularly to get the latest additions to keep your computer safe. Gary's advice is to keep updating your computer whenever feasible.

"Latest versions of Windows for example, offer much more security and will also tell you when you need to download a new add-on to your system," he says.

Fighting fire with fire

Firewalls are another way to protect your computer from unauthorised access.

"Basically when you go online you become part of the internet community and without a firewall your computer is exposed to anyone in that community," Gary explains.

Recent worms have been created to specifically target PCs without a firewall, and once they penetrate your system they can access all your personal details.

The latest operating systems on the market have firewalls installed as standard but if you are unsure, most service providers such as AOL or BT offer free firewalls for their clients. Alternatively you can download firewalls such as ZoneAlarm from the internet.

Parental guidance required

With computer use becoming commonplace in the home, many children are now logging on regularly.

Parents do need to be aware of what their children are doing on the internet and who they are in contact with.

Children in front of computers
Children won't be as vulnerable on the internet if they follow some simple rules

Unfortunately there are some dodgy characters out there that prey on youngsters but you can keep the risk to a bare minimum.

Make sure children are educated in "netiquette". Ensure they are aware of the potential risks and teach them to never give out any personal details such as phone numbers, schools or even surnames.

Many service providers offer filters for clients so that you can block any possibly unsafe websites. The software searches for any unsuitable material such as violent images or adult material - and blocks the browser from loading it.

However no filter is foolproof so make sure you keep an eye on what your children are up to on the 'net.

If possible keep the computer in an easily accessible area such as the living room so that you can constantly monitor which sites your child is accessing.

Staying safe

Although hackers do seem to be able to stay one step ahead of the average computer user, Gary says that's why we just have to stay up to date.

Major companies employ "white hackers" to continually thwart any attempt by those wanting to cause havoc on our computers and to continue devising ways of making our systems more secure.

That's why the best way to stay secure is to let them keep you secure! Make sure you are regularly updating your system and keep in mind security measures whenever you log on.

Computers and the internet can be risky if you don't follow some basic security rules but they can also be an amazing place to learn, contribute and enjoy, so what are you waiting for?

Read the main feature

See also ...

Watchdog - Guide to Buying Online

On the rest of the web
Think You Know - Keep Your Child Safe on the Internet

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