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As an IT instructor who teaches a CompTIA Security+ course, I am often asked by students how they can keep their computer systems safe from attack for the lowest cost possible. The short answer, unfortunately, is that you can’t. Sounds depressing, doesn’t it? I think so, but there is hope!

Three things to keep in mind before we begin.

It’s not all on you.

The first thing I usually tell people in response to that question is that you aren’t responsible for keeping your system completely safe from attacks. The safest system you can get would be one that you never turn on and, in fact, never leaves the store! Not very useful, right? So please understand that making your computer impervious to all attacks is impossible. Our goal should be lower the attack surface, or the profile, of the target system so that it is as hard to breach as possible.

Be aware of new threats.

The second thing I tell people is that you need to keep up with the latest threats to security and then research ways to mitigate those threats. Due diligence goes a long way toward helping us understand the why and the what. With that being said, please do your own research before implementing any of the suggestions that I make below. These suggestions have worked for me in the past and continue to provide value to me. They may not work for you. Additionally, neither LeaderQuest nor I are responsible for damage that may be done to any system where the suggestions are implemented. You have been warned!

Manage your costs.

The third thing that I mention to my students concerns the cost of implementing the suggested solutions to some of our security problems. I typically emphasize free tools since my students are often in class between jobs. Cost is a major factor in their decisions and I have done a lot of research over the years to find the best free products. Once I find a potential solution, I will download, install, and test it to see what might happen when it is installed (the typical gotchas that crop up from time-to-time). My research is not exhaustive and the cost for free tools can sometimes exceed their value, especially when you have to reinstall Windows because a program messed things up.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at how to secure our systems. Below you will find several practical tips that if followed will let you sleep better at night. Are you ready? Here goes!

1.   Keep your system up-to-date.

I know, I know, you’ve heard that one before. Well, so have many others, and yet it still bears repeating. See the Atlanta ransomware attack. You should let your operating system check for updates automatically and apply them when available. For Microsoft operating systems, the second Tuesday of the month is Patch Tuesday. Hint, hint!

2.   Keep your software up-to-date, as well.

Everything that you install should be updated. Most software will have a feature that either automatically updates the software, such as Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, or alerts you when an update is available, such as Java and Adobe Reader.

3.   Install, and keep up-to-date, an anti-malware suite.

I know that Microsoft Windows comes with anti-malware software installed (Windows Defender), but you really should look at it as a built in stop-gap until you can find something else. While I understand that anti-malware software can be expensive, costing as much as $50 per year, it is well worth the investment. If you are looking for a less-expensive option, consider downloading and installing the following:

  • ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus. It comes with a free, very robust firewall that is better than Windows Firewall. I have tested both against the GRC ShieldsUP! Website and ZoneAlarm always wins.
  • Malwarebytes has a free scanner that you can use to scan your computer. Please understand that it is not an active defensive program but one you will need to use manually.
  • Cybereason has an application you can download and use for free that will monitor your computer, and when it detects a program trying to encrypt your hard drive, it will try to stop it. It is free for anyone to use. That might help with the type of attacks that have plagued Atlanta and Colorado.

Keep in mind that anti-malware software is not perfect and won’t pick up one hundred percent of malware infections, especially those that have the software hasn’t encountered before. It is possible that your computer could still become infected, which is why we try to keep it updated.

4.   Secure your browser.

The last suggestion that I will offer is going to cover one of the primary ways that malware gets on your computer without you knowing it: your browser!

Use either Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. I am partial to Firefox since they seem to have a deeper focus on security. Either way, they both offer the ability to add extensions that can help increase your online security.

Install HTTPS Everywhere to your browser. This extension automatically searches for an HTTPS server at the address you type into your browsers’ address bar. Why is it important? Well, simply put, when you type in a web address, you don’t typically start it with HTTP or HTTPS, you use just the domain name (such as www.leaderquestonline.com). Since we don’t start it with HTTP or HTTPS, we usually end up at the unsecured site instead of the secured one that might be available. If present, HTTPS Everywhere uses the secured site address. If it isn’t present, then HTTPS Everywhere will let you use the unsecured site instead.

In case you didn’t know, HTTPS is an encrypted web server (using Transport Layer Security or TLS). That way, anyone eavesdropping on you will not be able to read things like your username and password. Pretty cool, huh? The makers of the software, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), are very concerned about your privacy, so please check their site out.

Next, install EFF’s Privacy Badger. It will help you block spying ads and trackers on the web. If you want to see just how extensive tracking can be on the web, consider installing Firefox Lightbeam by Mozilla. It will show the links and give you great insight into the true connectedness of our online world. It can be quite the eye-opener!

Install the NoScript Suite extension. This extension can greatly diminish the possibility of what is known as “drive-by malware infections” compromising your system, and it is available for Firefox and Chrome (in a lite version). It does take some getting used to, as it blocks scripts from running in the background which will cause a lot of websites not to work the way you might expect. Since we can’t tell if a website has been compromised by a third-party, having all scripts disabled initially will prevent an embedded malicious script from running in the background. Once you learn how to turn on the videos and other content you want to see using the tool, you will find that your computer is not only safer, but websites will often load faster.

Lastly, use a password manager extension. I use LastPass. Two things to bear in mind when using it: it can auto-populate your username and password, and it can provide you with highly random, unique passwords. Auto-populating the information helps us avoid keystroke logging viruses that can capture the keyboard inputs as we type. The random secure passwords it provides helps us avoid reusing passwords across sites and makes them harder to guess should someone capture them. If you purchase the premium edition of LastPass and have a Yubikey hardware token, you can integrate them. That will significantly increase the security of your passwords.

And that’s it!

While we can’t expect perfect security, the suggestions that I’ve made above can help you quickly and easily reduce your vulnerability to attack. Bear in mind that these are only suggestions and that there are many wonderful alternatives to most of these products, both free and for a fee, so find the ones that work best for you.

If you love playing with computer software or hardware, or if you’re interested in how computer systems and networks can be secured, a career in cyber security might be right for you! LeaderQuest offers IT training, including cyber security, networking and project management. If you’re interested in joining the thriving IT industry, we can help! LeaderQuest offers courses for beginners and IT pros alike. Click below to learn more.

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James’ passion is helping people connect with technology in meaningful ways. That passion drives him to learn technology deeply and well so that he can present that information to others. At our Denver campus, James teaches CompTIA courses including A+, Network+ and Security+.