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WinXP Tweaking: Protecting your PC from the outside world

Our latest guide writer Nathan Anderson aka Stikesis has his first guide published which looks at protecting you and your computer from the outside world. The guide looks at which programs you should use to protect your system from viruses and spyware along with which browsers and firewalls are best and what they do along with intelligent computing practices and basic Windows XP installation tips. If you're concerned about computer security as a new or average user, make sure you read on.
Nathan Anderson
Published Mon, Mar 7 2005 11:00 PM CST   |   Updated Tue, Apr 7 2020 12:26 PM CDT
Manufacturer: none

Protecting your PC - Introduction

IntroductionG'day all, this is the first in a series of lengthy bi-monthly guides here a TweakTown which I will write with the following goals for you and your computer:- Increase your computers responsiveness- Increase productivity/speed- Increase your computers stability- Increase your computers security- Make you understand what you are doing and whyAll of the above it possible through tweaking a computer, in this case focused at average/above average user's skill level to increase their knowledge of how software and hardware work. Tweaking is the act of modifying certain settings sometimes not found within the Graphical User Interface (GUI) of software. But the scope of the upcoming guides focus on much more than tweaking, we will look at:- Tweaking- Installing appropriate freeware (free software)- Intelligent computer practices- Overclocking- And more unplanned thingsFor now though let's get to the beginning of the first guide which is about what to do once you've installed Windows XP on a computer to prepare it for the big bad outside world of the Internet. It's all about protecting you and your computer and the software and methods you can use.Let's get started!How much to upgrade to x64 Edition?

Protecting your PC - Installation of Windows XP

Installation of Windows XPFor those who plan to install Windows XP in the future, here are some tips:Firstly, choose to do a clean Windows installation. This ensures that all previous problems in Operating Systems will not affect the newly installed OS. It also deletes all unneeded files, well actually any files remaining. So while preparing to install Windows XP, backup all of your important documents, these include: Documents, E-mail, usernames / passwords, software setup files, driver files, favourite Internet links and saved games. Depending on your hardware and previous operating system, you may not want to backup your setup or driver files. This is because most software and drivers are specific to an OS, so if you have old drivers from years back, they probably will not work with the new architecture found in Windows XP. This is okay, because Windows XP can support most hardware by default, and once your computer is up and running with Windows XP (WXP) you will be able to download new drivers and software from the Internet at the conclusion of this guide.Secondly, choose to format your disk in New Technology File System (NTFS), which is above the ranks of the old File Allocation Table (FAT) / FAT 32 (FAT 32-bit) found in Windows 9x. NTFS is designed for today's bigger hard disk capacities with Windows XP being the OS. If you choose this option, you will wipe the hard disk so make a backup before hand (See above paragraph). If you are using WXP with FAT32, you may want to reinstall Windows with NTFS unless you have an extremely small hard disk in which case it's probably not worth reformatting to NTFS. So now that Windows XP is installed the first thing to do if you have XP Home Edition is to set the default administrators to have passwords. Yes, plural of administrator; you see, on Windows XP Home, you first create your own account which is normal. But try booting into Safe Mode by pressing F8 during the boot. There is an Administrator account there with no password. This account is undeletable, so we must put a password on it. This is present in any WXP Home edition: an administrator account without a password. So anyone with access to your machine could log on without permission. The simplest way is to give this admin account a password, as you cannot delete it, only rename it. Give it a strong password; one including alpha-numeric characters. For added security, you could use capital letter within your password. For example: H0yat5L2argh1 - Passwords are extremely effective when they are random and around twenty characters long. Random letters are hard to remember, so instead think of a pass phrase, such as: I like kittens...Especially ones with long hair and a tail. Taking the first letter of each word so far looks this is: IlkEowlhaat. This has two capitalisations which is good, but no numbers yet. In this phrase the number one(1) is there. In this case, we could easily exchange one with 1. So now its: IlkE1wlhaat, which is a better password. The good thing about this password is that it's not a family members name, nor dictionary based words or anything coherent when read by itself. Therefore this password will protect quite strongly. Crackers use methods of brute force using all dictionary words and combinations of dictionary words to hack into computers. They can also know to try the user's family names or pets names as this is a common insecure practise. A pass phrase with alphanumeric characters and above 10 characters is quite safe for a home user. Try to remember it though, but don't write it down. Crackers can get information about your accounts the following ways: key loggers, looking at your screen / what you're typing, bin contents, phishing or ringing you up attempting to be an IT support member or someone else who may work with you (called Social Engineering).XP Professional requires the admin account to have a password during installation, so you don't need to worry about it on that version.The above password tips not only apply for your WXP login but any other passwords you use online.How much to upgrade to x64 Edition?

Protecting your PC - Software Protection - Terminology, General and Firefox

The TerminologyThe next step is to prepare the Internet with appropriate software capable of defending your computer when on a network or the Internet. The following are common threats and risks when you connect to the Internet:- Hacking/Cracking: People attempting to access your files / accounts (eg. Credit/bank account details).- Virus: Many forms of this can infiltrate your computer, causing data deletion or abnormally slow speeds and constant hard disk access. They can also remove any other computer defences and steal account information, or be used in combination with other computers to render a major server useless by all communicating with it at the same time and overloading it.- Spyware: Used to report to companies about customers browsing habits on the Internet. Basically invades privacy and is found in many free programs (eg. Gator, Comet Cursor, etc...), fortunately easily avoided with intelligent computer practices. - Malware: Similar to spyware except that it is designed to destroy your data or generally cause havoc.- Phishing: People being sucked into giving out confidential information with the false look of an email or web site. This is harder to spot as the fake page may have the same images and links as the real page, however the URL will seem unusual.- SPAM: E-mails sent to random addresses usually for phishing purposes or just to mass advertise a product. Most of the Internet's traffic is SPAM.
General InformationMost spyware/malware and viri can be found to run each time at start-up, and a virus scan will pick those virus entries and an anti-spyware program will clear the start-up items of spyware. The thing about spyware and viri is that you can manually remove them from the start-up list, but they will probably come back on the start-up list after an event is triggered (eg. program opening) and therefore you should use a virus/spyware which will scan and remove the problems at their roots.The obvious step to check for financial fraud is to regularly check credit card statements. But prevention is much more appropriate when dealing with computers. The first thing to do is to go to Windows Update and download Windows XP Service Pack 2 (Note: The service packs are cumulative, that is you can install SP2 without ever installing SP1 and gain its benefits). The service pack is over 250MB to get the administrator version, so if you still have a dial-up connection it might be an idea to look for it on a magazine's cover CD or place a free order with Microsoft who will mail a CD with SP2 on it. As soon as SP2 is on, download all the other recommended updates from Windows Update. Microsoft release Windows patches once a month so check regularly. Microsoft also currently has a SP3 out for Office 2002 / XP and SP1 for Office 2003.Now we need to stop the hackers, viri and spyware/malware. There are two ways to stop these: safe surfing and appropriate software. Safe surfing will also help to stop the other types of risks so we will discuss that later. First out, there are great freeware programs that are equivalent in their protection as commercial programs. The only difference apart from their pricing is that the commercial programs may be required for administrators in a business due to licensing issues or available features.A better browser alternativeNotice the blue 'e' symbol lying around the place...don't touch it! This is Microsoft's attempt at a browser but fails for its smorgasbord of security holes and errors at formatting web pages.Instead use Mozilla Firefox 1.0.1, a browser based upon the Gecko engine; this browser can load pages much faster and more appropriately with greater security than Internet Explorer. Only use Internet Explorer for pages that won't load with Firefox, such as most online banking sites.
Firefox lays out the pages faster and better, with more speed and obedience to web standards.How much to upgrade to x64 Edition?

Protecting your PC - Software Protection - Viruses, Firewalls and Spyware

Ani-VirusCurrently there are three good free anti-virus programs out there. They are Alwil Avast! 4.6, AVG 7 and Anti-Vir. I would advise not to use Anti-Vir, as it doesn't scan e-mails, which is one of the most popular ways of distributing viri. The real battle is between Avast! and AVG as they both have similar detection rates according to the Virus Bulletin, an independent virus testing organisation. Avast! has a better track record than AVG, but Avast! also requires more memory to run which can be a problem for systems with less than 256MB. AVG has also released a new version 7, which many users have had issues with including updating problems and the removal of viri. Ultimately, either anti-virus product will suffice as they both scan for in the wild and on-access. To make Avast! use less memory, you can also disable protection that you don't use, like if you don't use MSN Messenger, you can disable that protection.The commercial product Norton Anti-Virus has been dubbed 'blotware' because it takes up lots of memory and files take longer to be processed. It may be a massively biased opinion, but most people in the know dislike Norton products because of the resources they waste.FirewallThree firewalls all contending for first place of best free firewall: ZoneAlarm Free, a trusted and popular program, Kerio, which has stopped being freely updated and Sygate Personal which has more features than any other firewall. Each of these firewalls do what they're meant to, and that is to block unallowed outbound programs from accessing the Internet while also monitoring inbound traffic. No program will be allowed to access the Internet without your explicit permission when any of these firewalls is active. The most popular firewall is ZoneAlarm free, because it works straight away, but that isn't to say that Sygate is worse. In addition to these software firewalls, a hardware firewall, found in many routers, also provides protection but its best with broadband to have both a hardware and software firewall active.SpywareThis category is a bit different. There is one prevention tool called Spyware Blaster which creates entries in your registry to recognise when a blacklisted program or cookie attempts to be installed. The installation will never continue if it is malware or spyware that Spyware Blaster recognises so it is important to update the program often. To eliminate the spyware / malware or usage tracks from your computer, you need to use either tool of Spybot - Search and Destroy or Lavasoft Ad-aware. S&D has many helpful tools that come with it and is completely free of advertising so I would recommend it.Microsoft has also released an Anti-Spyware tool (formerly GIANT Anti-Spyware), but this isn't looking to good in its current beta stage. If you have it uninstall it and replace it with one of the ones mentioned above.
With Spybot Search and Destroy's extra tool, it's easy to remove spyware.You can read more about a bunch of spyware removal programs in an article we published called "Spyware and Adware Removal Guide - Speed Up and Free your PC" back in October 2004.How much to upgrade to x64 Edition?

Protecting your PC - Intelligent Computing Practices

Intelligent Computing PracticesMany people recommend using a limited account when on the Internet so as to not install bad software. This is a good way of prevention, but it really doesn't tell you what you should avoid; there are plenty of things that can still go wrong even when on a limited account. When receiving and replying to e-mail, check who has sent it and be sceptical of its legitimacy if it involves financial details. Banks do not send e-mails asking you for your account details, neither does Microsoft warn you about problems by e-mail, no companies ask you for their product's CD-Key.If you have willingly done the senders bidding in the above scenarios, you've lost something. If you are unsure of the verification, ring up the company involved to see if they have e-mailed you. Also while e-mailing, do not open attachments that you are unsure of, they may contain viri and be sure that you scanned them for a virus before you open them. When buying items online, verify that the URL has a protocol of https://... as the "s" means secure which prevents fraud, in addition to reading the company's privacy policy. If they don't have a policy or they have one with nice fine writing, beware. This includes downloading programs, if the don't have a privacy policy, the software could be spyware. Avoid sending personal information online unless on a secure server (above) as anyone can intercept the packet of your personal information for their own gain.When on public computers, refrain from saving passwords and usernames; be sure to sign out after each session and to clear the cache, cookies and URL's visited. Using Firefox creates a much more secure environment to explore the Internet. It can block pop-ups and doesn't have the security holes that hackers target within Internet Explorer. Only use one anti-virus and one firewall at the same time, as having two of a kind is really just a waste of resources as each program must check the data for itself just to reach the same result. Lastly it is most important to check for updates for your preventative programs regularly to combat new threats.When you install a personal firewall, there usually aren't many settings to tweak as they come fairly secure 'out-of-the-box'. However anti-virus products can be tweaked heavily, usually involving a trade-off with protection and speed. Some anti-virus software can be configured to have different scanning levels with either low, medium or high. High is the most secure but it will take the longest time to analyse the files. Also, depending on your computer, you may not need all of the protection your anti-virus product automatically loads up. If you are still using Windows 9x, you could put your virus protection levels down to low, because no viri are written for it anymore.Be careful if using another anti-spyware tool other than the ones that I mentioned, many of these programs are actually spyware themselves using clever tactics to make the user think it will help when it won't, so ideally use Spybot Search and Destroy or Lavasoft Ad-aware. If you choose to use both spyware products, don't be fooled into thinking Spybot Search and Destroy is actually spyware itself. Spybot creates dormant backups of the files it removes by default which other anti-spyware programs will then pick up as spyware. Generally, you do not need spyware / adware / malware to be backed up, so you could disable this option and prevent any issues.How much to upgrade to x64 Edition?

Protecting your PC - Mentioned Sites and Conclusion

Mentioned SitesBelow is a list of sites we referred to throughout this guide:Avast! 4.6 (Anti-virus) - www.avast.comAVG 7 (Anti-virus) - www.grisoft.comAnti-Vir (Anti-virus) - Mozilla 1.7.5 / Firefox 1.0.1 (Great Browser) - Spybot Search & Destroy 1.3 (Anti Spyware / Malware) - Lavasoft Ad-aware (Anti Spyware / Malware) - www.lavasoftusa.comSpyware Blaster 3.2 (Spyware / Malware Preventer) - www.wilderssecurity.netWindows XP Service Pack 2 Security Updates - Alarm Free (Firewall) - www.zonelabs.comSygate Personal (Firewall) - www.sygate.comKerio Personal (Firewall) - www.kerio.comVirus Bulletin (Anti-Virus Testing) - www.virusbtn.comConclusionThis first guide has been basically to secure your computer for the following articles which we will publish in the future which require stability provided by anti-virus and firewall programs.You should be able to partly understand what to avoid online, but you really need to develop your own instincts online. Effective passwords are definitely important with dealing with security, but a strong password is pointless if you forget it or if you write it down.Security freeware is the same as the full version of the software, except without the extra administrator parts.- For any questions, comments or suggestions, don't hesitate to visit our Windows forumsHow much to upgrade to x64 Edition?

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