July 29th, 2009
Step 1. Install Windows updates automatically
Step 2. Make your primary account a limited user account
Step 3. Use Firefox with the NoScript extension
Step 4. Read up on social engineering and how to avoid being the victim of it
Step 5. Do not pirate software, music, or movies
Step 6. Avoid all “antivirus” or “security suite” software
Out of the top three consumer-oriented software platforms (Windows, Mac OS X, various Linux distributions), Windows is my least favorite operating system, but I’m no Windows hater. A lot of times I hear Mac and Linux users saying they switched because they were tired of viruses and malware in Windows.
While it’s true that Mac OS X and most Linux distros make it easy to keep your operating system secure with their default settings, you can make Windows just as secure, and that’s what this six-step guide is for.
If you follow these instructions carefully, you should pretty much never get malware (spyware, adware, viruses, trojans, rogue viruses, worms) in Windows.
The screenshots use Windows 7, but the same principles apply to Windows Vista and Windows XP as well. The steps may just be slightly different (especially for Windows XP). If you’re still using Windows 98, pay for an upgrade to Windows 7; or if you’re too cheap for that, just switch to Linux. There’s almost nothing Windows 98 can do that Linux can’t, and Windows 98 no longer receives security updates (it also has no limited user accounts).
You can click on the screenshot thumbnails if you want to see larger versions.
In early 2009, there was a lot of paranoia about the Conficker worm, which was supposedly going to do scary things and which had already infected 10 million computers. Which users had to worry about Conficker? The Windows users who did not install Windows updates. A full month before that iteration of Conficker became active, Microsoft had already released a patch for the flaw Conficker exploited.
Windows Updates can be just annoying prompts to install a new version of “Windows Genuine Advantage.” More often than not, though, they are actual security updates that patch flaws and security holes in the Windows operating system. It is a good idea to set these updates to install regularly.
Have you ever had your Windows installation infected so thoroughly (registry, dlls, startup programs, other system files) that it was apparent it would take less time to reinstall Windows than it would to try to clean out all the malware that destroyed Windows? Are you kicking yourself because the infection came through one or two clicks of the mouse?
Well, that’s because Windows, by default, makes the primary user a full system administrator. In newer versions (Windows Vista and Windows 7), there is something called User Account Control. It’s that annoying “Are you sure? Are you sure?” prompt you get that you end up conditioning yourself to always click “Yes” to.
By using primarily a limited user account, you can feel free to click on what you want and not worry about infecting system files. When you want to finally install software, you can do so by temporarily authenticating as the administrator account.
First, we’re going to create a new administrator account.
With the soon-to-be-regular account called Susan, I’m going to be naming the new administrator account SuperSusan so I know it’s a special account I shouldn’t be using on a regular basis.
And, by the way, even Microsoft recommends you use a standard (or limited) user account. You can click on Why is a standard account recommended? for more details about that.
Make sure your password for this new account is significantly complicated. It should contain no dictionary words or personally identifiable information (birthdays, social security numbers). It should have numbers, lowercase letters, uppercase letters, and punctuation in it, though.
So you don’t forget your password, go ahead and write it down on a sticky note somewhere near your computer. The greatest threat to your security is an online threat, not another family member. Besides, anyone with physical access to your computer and a little know-how can easily reset your password, anyway.
When you’re done, click Create password
I see a lot of confused Windows users wondering which web browser is “the safest.” Is it Opera? Is it Chrome? Is it Firefox? Internet Explorer? Safari?
The truth is that if you use any modern web browser with its default settings, they’re all about the same in terms of safety. They all have pop-up blockers that block 95% of pop-ups. They all have warnings about potential spoofing websites. They all get regular security updates when flaws are discovered, and every browser has flaws. There is no perpetually invincible web browser.
Think of your computer as an exclusive nightclub. Do you think it’s easier to secure your party by having a bouncer outside the club who screens all incoming guests, or by allowing anyone inside the club and then having bouncers inside trying to drag people out? Well, NoScript is your bouncer outsider. It’ll block everything, and then it’s up to you to let trusted websites in on a case-by-case basis.
Convenience and security are always at odds. It may be convenient to have thousands of dollars of cash on you at all times, because it’s always easily accessible, but if you get mugged or pickpocketed then all of your money is gone. It’s slightly less convenient to keep most of your money in a bank, but it’s a lot safer in the bank (and also insured up to a certain amount, in case the bank gets robbed).
For the first two weeks you use NoScript, it may seem pointless. It may seem as if you’re just whitelisting every single site you visit. Don’t give up. After a while, you’ll realize you’ve whitelisted just about every site you do visit regularly, and then you can spend a lot less time whitelisting (or keeping blacklisted) potentially shady websites you stumble upon on a less regular basis.
Have you ever heard the term trojan virus, gotten scared, and thought “I hope I never get one of those”?
Well, the good news is that you don’t ever have to get a trojan. Trojans don’t just happen. You choose to install them yourself. Trojans are becoming increasingly the most popular kind of malware, and they can thrive on any operating sytem (Windows, Mac, Linux), because they exploit a security flaw the operating systems cannot patch—the user.
That’s you. You are potentially the biggest security hole for your computing experience.
Trojans and phishing scams rely on something called social engineering, which is just a fancy term for tricking someone into lowering security guards.
It can be someone calling up and pretending to be your IT support department in order to get your password. It can be someone pretending to be your bank to get your private personal information. It can be a pop-up window pretending to be an antivirus scanner that’s found malware on your computer (and if you pay the scammers $50, they’ll remove the non-existent malware for you… or actually install real malware now that you’ve been tricked into installing it).
You wouldn’t hand your car keys over to fake valet. Don’t hand over the keys to your computer to a fake… anything (fake pirated commercial program, fake warning about malware, fake credit card company request for information verification).
Do yourself a favor. The absolute most important step to take in securing your computer is making yourself an educated user. Google the term social engineering and read the first ten results of that search thoroughly.
I’m not saying if you pirate software, music, and movies that you will definitely contract malware, but by not pirating all that stuff, you lower your chances significantly of installing a trojan or some other kind of malware.
If you’re hard up for cash, the best way to look for trustworthy free stuff is to look for open source stuff.
The website Open Source Windows has lots of great free (and malware-free) software. No pop-ups. No trial periods. No scams. No activation keys. No exhorbitant costs.
You can also find some more-obscure open source projects at Source Forge.
Note that for the script that automatically starts downloading the file (without manually clicking the download link), you’ll have to whitelist the site from the NoScript icon. You’ll also have to do this the first time you watch a video at YouTube or Hulu or the first time you try to book airline tickets on a site like Expedia or Priceline.
In addition to open source software, there are also writings, pictures, and music released under freer-than-traditional-copyright licenses. You can find more information about this at Creative Commons.
Although this doesn’t directly make your Windows installation more secure, it is a good idea for several reasons:
- If you already have solid security in place, pretend security (Norton, McAfee, AVG, Avast, MalwareBytes, Kapersky, etc.) just takes up extra hard drive space and sometimes extra system resources. This means you have less storage space for your actual files (music, movies, documents, pictures). It can also mean your computer doesn’t run as fast as it would otherwise.
- So-called antivirus and antispyware programs encourage complacency. Rather than being proactive about security by locking down the system and educating the user on how to avoid social engineering–based attacks, these placebos make people think they’re “protected” while wasting space, resources, and possibly money.
- If you constantly rely on these security suites to protect you, you’re more likely to fall for rogue viruses pretending to be antivirus scans.
- There are two ways antimalware tries to protect you—by keeping a list of known offenders and comparing files to that known list, and by trying to guess what might be an offending file or application. The list of known offenders can never keep up with actual new offenders. And guesses lead to a lot of false positives, making users unnecessarily paranoid (about tracking cookies, for example).
Of course there are always folks who will say “But I want to just run it just in case….” In this case, there is no just in case. If you follow all five of the previous steps carefully, antivirus will do nothing to protect you. And if you refuse to follow all five of the previous steps carefully, antivirus will also do nothing to protect you.
It would be like a soldier suiting up with heavy armor and kevlar and then adding a razor-thin layer of tissue to the top as “just in case” protection against bullets. If you have armor and kevlar, that’s the best protection you have against bullets. The tissue won’t be offering additional protection. And if you don’t have the armor and kevlar, again the tissue won’t offer additional protection.
The armor and kevlar in this analogy are the first five steps in this tutorial. The tissue is “antivirus” software, security suites, and all that other garbage that offers you no protection.
Hopefully you’ve found this tutorial helpful. As you can see, security woes are no reason to switch away from Windows. If you have a genuine interest in exploring Mac OS X or Linux, though, I think you’ll find them both rewarding computing experiences in their own respective ways.