Writer’s Note: This is the third in a series of four articles on improving home computer security.
So you read Part 1 of this series and secured your network with a router. Then you read Part 2 and secured your computer with a low-privileged user account, a safer browser, Windows Updates and an extra firewall. Now it’s time to reclaim your computer from all the junk installed on it and learn some principles of computer security to keep your computer, well, your computer.
When you first got your shiny new computer, you probably noticed a lot of programs in the Start menu. Some of them you use and some of them you don’t. Some of them are crippled (do not include all features until you buy the full version), and some of them may be trial software that lasts 30 or 60 days. When you got broadband, you probably installed the ISP’s software as well, thinking it was necessary to get on the Internet (it’s not); and the first time you watched a DVD on your computer, it probably tried to install its own player (as did the next DVD with it’s particular player). You may have installed some other program off the Internet, which by default, installed several other programs that you don’t need, and so on. Now if you don’t mind all these programs running in the background, slowing down your computer and taking up hard drive space, then you can skip the next couple paragraphs. If you want to make the most of what you paid for, read on.
The first thing to do is to make a list of all the programs you actually use. You might want to do this over a period of time (a couple days, a week) so you don’t leave out anything important. Now go into the Start Menu and find all the programs not on your list. Each program should have an “Uninstall” shortcut (but many don’t), which you can open to uninstall the program. If you don’t see an “Uninstall” shortcut, write down the name of the program, and go to the Control Panel. Click on “Add or Remove Programs,” find the program on the list, and then click on “Change/Remove” (sometimes just “Remove”) to uninstall it. If your ISP gave you any programs (like say their own browser), you can get rid of those now and use Firefox instead. Your ISP will probably have a Webmail site, or you can sign up for Gmail (www.gmail.com) and stop changing your email address every time you switch ISPs or move.
The next step is harder but worth the trouble. Go to “Start”, “Run…” and type in the following without quotes: “msconfig.” Click OK, and the System Configuration Utility will appear. In the first tab, choose “Selective Startup,” and in the last tab (“Startup”) take a look at all the programs that start when Windows does. Chances are you can deselect pretty much everything on the list, but if you aren’t sure, do a search on the last part of the entry in the middle column (“Command”) in Google. For example, there’s an entry with the command “RUNDLL.EXE C:\WINDOWS\system32\NvCpl.dll,NvStartup” – do a search on “NvCpl.dll,NvStartup,” and you’ll find it’s used by nVidia graphics cards. In this case it won’t hurt to leave it running. When you are finished, click “OK” and then “Exit Without Restart,” and restart your computer when it’s convenient (like after you finish reading this). The next time you restart you will probably notice it doesn’t take as long, and you may notice your computer running more smoothly.
The next step in cleaning up your computer is to learn some basic security principles that will keep it free of random junk and spyware. The first is to think of the Internet like the scariest ghetto you’ve ever heard of. If you were in a scary ghetto and someone ran up to you and said, “Hey, I’ve got some prescription drugs for cheap!” you would probably run away. Why is it then, that some people have actually given out their bank account information to someone claiming to be a Nigerian fugitive? If someone from a scary ghetto asked for your bank account information in broken English, you would run away. The same applies to the Internet: no one has your best interest in mind.
The second principle is to educate yourself. If you have ever passed on a forward, believing in your heart that it is true, congratulations – you’ve been suckered. Next time you get a forward, check out www.snopes.com before you send it on to your unsuspecting or soon-to-be-irritated friends. The same goes for installing software – run the name of any software you plan to install through Google with “spyware” tacked on the end of your search (i.e., “kazaa spyware”). Chances are if it’s spyware, you’ll get a hit in the first page about it. Feed your new-found paranoia with the facts, and you’ll be a lot safer.
The third principle is to take ownership and responsibility of your computer. It’s easy to think of your computer as just another appliance, like a toaster or microwave or a TV. The truth is though, that your computer is a gateway into your home. If you let criminals use your home, your car or your money, you’ll go to jail. So far, letting them use your computer isn’t a crime, but the results are often the same – people end up getting scammed, extorted or having their identities stolen and their lives destroyed. Quite literally, if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
If you’ve made it this far, you are well on your way to being a power user – but if you’ve got a wireless network you’ll want to check back for installment number four in this series: securing a wireless network.