Introduction to Computers: Maintenance and Security

Maintenance 

Lifespan of technology (usability before requiring equipment replacement) is increasing, while the cost of computing technology is dramatically lowering.  Hardware and software is still usable years after purchase, however computers do require maintenance to work properly.

“When people notice their computer’s performance slowing, the most common reason is the hard disk. Your computer’s hard disk is a non-removable area that holds all the information available from your computer. Over time, hard disks begin to lose their ability to store data efficiently.”  (Speed up you PC:  Automate your computer maintenance schedule – Microsoft 2012)

Why is regular maintenance necessary?  It is easy to think computers are so advanced that they don’t have the same problems as other machines. The common misconception is that once a computer is set up properly, it should work perfectly all the time. The truth is that a computer system is a collection of complex machine and software, including moving parts that wear out with use (hard drives), that performs trillions of calculations, using hundreds of parts and wires, and is under constant assault by the processing needs of the applications, unwanted viruses/spyware and their own users. Here are just a few major reasons every computer needs regular and proactive maintenance:

  • Microsoft and Apple critical security updates need to be applied at least once a month.
  • Firewall, virus and spyware protection needs regular review and management.
  • Simple daily use of the Internet can create random network issues with modem and router equipment.
  • Management of backup status and data is critical for data recovery in the event of hard drive failure.
  • Management and backup of hard drive resources prevents storage issues and crashes.
  • Regular optimization of hard drives increases speed and efficiency.
  • Computers are magnets for dust, and dust clogs fans and heat-sinks.  This causes overheating, which in turn leads to system lockups and hardware failure.

Because of these factors, every computer requires regular service maintenance to keep the big problems away and maintain optimal performance. 

Backing Up Files

With modern operating systems, many backup options are done automatically by the computer and provide various options to recover files in a crisis. Windows Vista introduced Windows Backup, and Apple computers use an application called Time Machine.  Backups contain a copy of the data saved on the computer’s hard drive.

The only really effective form of backup is one that happens with no user input; it must be automatic with no need to remember to initiate the backup.

Trav’s Tips: A hard drive error can happen at any time and without warning. A hard drive is the only real ‘moving part’ in a computer.  Picture a hard drive as a record player platter with a needle to read the data.  While your computer is on, this platter spins at 5000-10000 revolutions per minute.  After years of use, the bearings that the platter spins on, simply wear out (there is a reason most drives are only warrantied for a few years).  You can usually hear a hard drive that is going to fail – it starts to make louder noises.  In addition, sudden impacts (such as dropping) will immediately destroy a hard drive – making laptops especially vulnerable.

Be sure to back up all your personal and business data on a regular basis. Using an external hard drive (connected via USB) is usually the simplest method as it can be easily configured using the automatic backup software included in the operating system.

There are also online backup systems that provide space to store your backup files using the Internet.  iCloud is a cloud storage and cloud computing service from Apple launched in 2011. As of January 2013, the service has more than 250 million users.  The service allows users to store data such as music and applications on remote computer servers for download to multiple devices such phones, tablets and personal computers. It also acts as a data-syncing center for email, contacts, calendars, bookmarks, notes, reminders (to-do lists), documents, photos and other data.

Dropbox is another free service that allows users to save copies of their files on online servers for backup purposes, or to be able to share files easily with other computers connected to the Internet.

Safety and Security

Changing demographics (aging population, acceptance of technology, children, families, etc.) is redefining the concept of ‘average’ tech user.  Security concerns (hacking, viruses, and malware) are on the rise as usage increases.  More and more often, people simply want and need their devices to work without worry or aggravation.  Personal information is now trusted and stored in electronic devices connected to the Internet.  Sharing sensitive information online, including government forms, taxes, banking, etc. is now commonplace.

This all means that online and network security is of an all time level of importance.  Technology devices are no longer toys or products for the young; they are integral parts of the lives of people of all ages and demographics.  We trust our most private and important information to be stored in computers, and knowing this, wrongdoers are daily creating new tools to steal or corrupt this data.

“PC malware had its busiest quarter in recent history, and mobile malware also increased at a huge rate… We saw an increase in malware targeting the Mac.” (McAfee Threats Report:  First Quarter 2012)

Protect Your Computer

You can take safeguards against virus infection. The first thing people think of is to install a virus protection program (anti-virus), however safe computing habits are often just as important.  When you are accepting software or scripts/macros on Internet sites or reading mail from unknown senders you are making your computer vulnerable.  Scripts or macros are small computer programs that contain a list of instructions for the computer to perform.

An anti-virus program will be able to check files before you save, to analyze your computer for viruses and to repair damage or delete files that are infected with viruses. However, you may have to replace infected files that cannot be repaired.

Antivirus programs automatically download regular updates (called definitions), which keep it up-to-date and able to deal with new viruses as they are encountered.  It is a constant struggle for manufacturers to stay current with virus updates.

Trav’s Tips:  It is unnecessary to pay for a virus protection program.  There are many excellent free programs available for most operating systems (including Microsoft Security Essentials for Windows and Sophos for Apple Macintosh computers).  A popular misconception is that Apple computers cannot get viruses.  This is not true.  As we saw before, Apple computers have such a small market share that most viruses are written for Windows computers (which are much more plentiful).  This means Macs are less vulnerable but not immune to malware.

Computer Viruses and Malware

Malware, short for malicious (or malevolent) software, is software used or created by attackers to disrupt computer operation, gather sensitive information, or gain access to private computer systems. Malware is a general term used to refer to a variety of forms of hostile or intrusive software and includes: computer viruses, ransomware, worms, trojan horses, rootkits, keyloggers, spyware, adware, and other malicious programs.  The majority of active malware threats are usually worms (spread without human interaction) or Trojans (pretends to be a valid program) rather than viruses.  We’ll keep things simple and just use the popular term ‘virus’.

A virus is a program designed by a computer programmer (malicious hacker) to do a certain unwanted function. It can be very destructive and damage your computer’s programs and files (software) causing the computer to stop working.  Though viruses do not damage computer hardware, there have been attempts to create programs that will do things like run the hard drive until it fails or to lodge itself in the computer’s clock (which has a rechargeable battery) allowing it to remain active even months after the computer has been unplugged.

The reasons why hackers create viruses are open for speculation.  Reasons range from simply to see if it can be done, to anti-corporate actions, to criminal intent, etc.

Viruses can cause a great deal of damage to the software on computers it infects and it can cost a lot of time and money to correct it.  Computer viruses have been around for a long time (even before computers became widely used) and they will likely remain with us forever. The main, common feature of a virus is that it is contagious! Their unifying purpose is to spread and infect other computers.

A computer gets a virus from an infected file.  A computer cannot get a virus from a plain text email message or from a simple text file. That is because the virus needs to be ‘run’ or executed before it can take effect. This usually happens when the user tries to open an infected program, access an infected disk or open a file with an infected macro or script attached to it. A plain email message is made up of text, which does not execute or run when opened. Modern email programs provide the ability to allow users to format email messages with HTML and attach scripts to them for various purposes.  It is possible for a malicious hacker to attempt to spread a virus by building a virus script into an HTML type of email message.

Firewalls

You should also use a firewall on your computer for added security. A firewall is a system that prevents unauthorized use and access to your computer. A firewall can be either hardware or software based. Hardware firewalls provide a strong degree of protection from most forms of attack coming from the outside world and can be purchased as a stand-alone product or are contained in Internet routers.

For individual home users, the most popular firewall choice is a software firewall (both Windows and Macintosh operating system software include a software firewall).  A good software firewall will protect your computer from outside attempts to control or gain access your computer.

It is important to remember that on its own a firewall is not going to rid you of your computer virus problems, but when used in conjunction with regular operating system updates and a good anti-virus scanning software, it will add some extra security and protection for your computer or network.

Updating Software

It is very important to update your software regularly. When a program is released, particularly Internet browsers, it may contain flaws (bugs). These bugs may be invisible to the user, however wrongdoers will exploit these flaws for their own use. Ensuring your software is up to date is a very important step in keeping your computer secure.

Internet Safety

With the advent of the Internet, computers users now work in an ‘open-system’ and security has become more complicated. You want to be sure that no one observes the transaction and collects or modifies your transaction information; you want to be sure that the transaction is secure.

This is where computer security comes in. There are many different types of security systems though most use a process called encryption. When you connect to your bank or other service to make a transaction you are often required to send your account number or user name as well as a Personal Identification Number (PIN) or password for verification. This information should only be sent after establishing a secure connection. If you are using an Internet browser you will see a small closed lock appear in the window of the browser.

The transaction often involves the exchange of a small file that keeps track of the transaction and can act a flag or bookmark when you next visit that website. These small files are called cookies and are set by the website you are visiting.

A cookie, also known as an HTTP cookie, web cookie, or browser cookie, is usually a small piece of data sent from a website and stored in a user’s web browser while a user is browsing a website. When the user browses the same website in the future, the data stored in the cookie can be retrieved by the website to notify the website of the user’s previous activity.  Cookies were designed to be a reliable mechanism for websites to remember the state of the website or activity the user had taken in the past. Cookies perform essential functions in the modern Web, including authentication cookies to verify a user’s identity and if they are logged in.

Although cookies cannot carry viruses, and cannot install malware on the host computer, tracking cookies and especially third-party tracking cookies are commonly used as ways to compile long-term records of individuals’ browsing histories — a major privacy concern that prompted European and US law makers to take action in 2011.

Passwords

A password is a secret word or string of characters that is used for user authentication to prove identity, or to gain access. A typical computer user has passwords for many purposes: logging in to accounts, retrieving e-mail, accessing applications, databases, networks, web sites, and even reading the morning newspaper online.

Most organizations specify a password policy that sets requirements for the composition and usage of passwords, typically dictating minimum length, required categories (e.g. upper and lower case, numbers, special characters), and prohibited elements (e.g. own name, D.O.B., address, telephone number, etc.).

Passwords are the most common form of security, but they are really not very secure.  How do our online passwords fall? In every imaginable way: They’re guessed, hacked from website’s database, cracked by brute force, stolen with a key logger, or reset completely by conning a company’s customer support department. 

Trav’s Tips:  DON’T 

  • Reuse passwords on different sites. If you do, a hacker who gets just one of your accounts will own them all.
  • Use a dictionary word as your password. If you must, then string several together into a pass phrase.
  • Use standard number substitutions. Think “P455w0rd” is a good password? N0p3! Cracking tools now have those built in.
  • Use a short password—no matter how weird. Today’s processing speeds mean that even passwords like “h6!r$q” are quickly crackable. Your best defense is the longest possible password.

But here’s the problem:  the more services used = more passwords needed = more user trouble in remembering all those difficult passwords! Security and practicality are in conflict.  Obviously, we need something that is both secure and which we can remember. Using meaningless sequences of letters, numbers, and characters is more secure but not practical. 

Trav’s Tips:  DO 

  • Think of a story, something weird and memorable that happened to you. Like that time you went jogging and stepped on a rat. Your password? “JogStepRat”: Your personal story boiled down to three words. If this really happened to you, you won’t forget. And no one else can guess it – unless you’ve told everyone that story!  Add a number or symbol as required.
  • Enable two-factor authentication when offered. When you log in from a strange location, a system like this will send you a text message with a code to confirm.
  • Give difficult to guess answers to security questions. Think of them as a secondary password. Just keep your answers memorable. My first car? Why, it was a “Camper Van Beethoven Rules.”  Your favorite color?  Crayola has a few options:  malachite green, or caput mortuum red.
  • Use a unique, secure email address for password recoveries. Create a special account you never use for communications. And make sure to choose a username that isn’t tied to your name. 

The 25 Most Popular Passwords of 2012 

1. password (Unchanged)

2, 123456 (Unchanged)

3. 12345678 (Unchanged)

4. abc123 (Up 1)

5. qwerty (Down 1)

6. monkey (Unchanged)

7. letmein (Up 1)

8. dragon (Up 2)

9. 111111 (Up 3)

10. baseball (Up 1)

11. iloveyou (Up 2)

12. trustno1 (Down 3)

13. 1234567 (Down 6)

14. sunshine (Up 1)

15. master (Down 1)

16. 123123 (Up 4)

17. welcome (New)

18. shadow (Up 1)

19. ashley (Down 3)

20. football (Up 5)

21. jesus (New)

22. michael (Up 2)

23. ninja (New)

24. mustang (New)

25. password1 (New)

Safety and Security Learning Check

  1. T or F              A firewall program will remove viruses from your computer.
  2. T or F              Once you’ve thought of a great password, you should reuse it whenever you need a password.
  3. T or F              Cookies can be used to track a person’s internet habits.
  4. T or F              Safe computer habits are just as important as running an antivirus program on your computer.
  5. T or F              If a piece of software is working fine for your needs, it is not important to do regular updates.
  6. T or F              A virus is a type of computer malware software.
  7. T or F              It is perfectly safe to open email attachments if your computer is running an up-to-date virus program.
  8. T or F              Macintosh computers are immune to viruses.
  9. T or F              You should purchase a firewall program for your new Windows computer.
  10. T or F              It is fine to use simple answers to password security reset questions.