Computing > Tips and Tricks for a Secure Home Networking Environment

Tips and Tricks for a Secure Home Networking Environment

by Bill Herman, Ph.D.

You can make your computer more secure for no cost and without much effort. If you haven't done so already, follow the steps below. If you can’t do them all at once, bookmark this webpage and chip away until you’re done. Your computer will thank you.

  • First, install and configure the antivirus software the school provides FOR FREE. (Est. time: 30 minutes).

    See: http://www.upenn.edu/computing/virus/

    Once you’ve installed the software, check for updates right away, and set the software to check for updates weekly or daily. After it should have run an update or two, check in to see that it really has updated. Also, schedule regular virus scans at a time when your computer is often on.
  • Second, you should be sure you have some sort of firewall. (Est. time: 30-60 minutes.) If you have a router (e.g., a Wireless hub), this is probably automatically configured to act as a firewall, but see the device's manual and actually check your settings to make sure. Also, a firewall comes with Windows XP and with the two latest versions of Mac OS X, so you just have to turn it on.

    For Windows, see: http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/security/internet/sp2_wfintro.mspx

    For Mac 10.4, see: http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?path=Mac/10.4/en/mh1042.html

    If you have older versions of Windows or Mac OS, there are several commercial and free firewalls available.

    For Windows, see: http://www.pcworld.com/downloads/collection/0,collid,59,00.asp

    If you have a router, you are generally best off using the router’s firewall and a software firewall together, but know that a router’s firewall is generally better than a software firewall.

    Speaking of routers, if you do have a wireless hub, rename the network and configure it so that you need a password to log in. If you have a choice, choose WPA, which is much more secure than WEP. Set your own, unique password. Your WPA password must be at least 8 characters long, but the longer (up to 63 characters), the better. As with all passwords, never use anything that's easily guessed, including your address, dictionary words, etc.
  • Third, be sure you’re updating your operating system on a regular basis. (Est. time: 30 minutes.) If you have no idea how to do this in Windows, go to this site:

    http://office.microsoft.com/home/default.aspx

    Before you download and install updates, look at the right side of the window. The webpage detects whether or not you have automatic updates turned on. Click on the link here that says either "Pick a time to install updates" or "Turn on automatic updates." Another window pops up in which you can pick a daily time for the computer to automatically download and update your computer. Pick a time at which your computer is often on (the default is 3:00 am, which won't work for most of you), and choose "OK." NOW, choose "Express" to get the current updates you need right now.

    To turn on automatic software updates in Mac OS X, open System Preferences. Choose "Software Update." Make sure the "Check for Updates" box is checked, and pick a frequency (at least weekly). If the box wasn't checked, you can also check for updates manually from this window.
  • Fourth, you should seriously consider installing software that searches for and destroys spyware. (Est. time: 30-60 minutes) For Windows, there are a number of very good free programs to do this for you. See reviews here:

    http://www.pcworld.com/downloads/collection/0,collid,1332,00.asp

    For Macs, spyware is MUCH less of a problem. The only program I know of is MacScan. It's not free, but you can run it in trial mode and make sure you're clean now. As long as you don't install random stuff, you should be fine, but I make no promises.

    See:

    http://macscan.securemac.com/
  • Fifth, here's a password tip: USE DIFFERENT PASSWORDS FOR DIFFERENT ONLINE ACTIVITIES. Do NOT use your email password(s) for your online banking and other highly sensitive stuff. I use two passwords for most online activities like email, but I have a third password just for online banking. Change these passwords after you've made sure you're secure and spyware free (est. time: 30 minutes).
  • Sixth, begin backing up your work on a regular basis. (Setup time: 30 minutes to 3 hours. Time spent regularly backing up: 1 to 15 minutes, depending on method.) If you use a Mac, download SuperDuper. Even the free version will run backups automatically. See:

    http://www.shirt-pocket.com/SuperDuper/SuperDuperDescription.html

    Windows comes with a built-in application that will run scheduled backups. See:

    http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/setup/learnmore/bott_03july14.mspx

    The easiest way to do automatic backups is with an external drive, and they've gotten pretty cheap. You can buy a large USB flash drive or a small external hard drive for less than you think if you buy online. (Google "buy computer parts"). If you get an external hard drive, DO NOT use any included backup software until you’ve read the online reviews; many otherwise fine external hard drives come with terrible software. You're certainly better off using SuperDuper, though I can’t speak for the Windows backup software.

    Otherwise, buy a spool of CD-Rs or DVD-Rs (and a felt-tip pen), but this is a markedly more difficult (and less reliable) solution for little if any cost savings.
  • The rest is optional. If you want to test your firewall, here's a site that will test it:

    http://www.dslreports.com/tools?r=630

    If you really want to get in-depth, see the list of tips here:

    http://www.techspot.com/tweaks/windows_security/

    I hope this is of some use to you. The IT staff is happy to answer additional questions, but you should know that I learned most of this via Google, and you can do the same.

    Take care of your computer, and it will take care of you.