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Thursday, 25 July, 2002, 10:21 GMT 11:21 UK
Keeping your cyber self safe and sound
Keyboard, Eyewire
Be careful what you do with that keyboard online

You would not walk around town carrying a placard announcing your name, address, phone number, yet many people inadvertently share similar information when they go online.

Unless you take precautions you could find your computer is infected by viruses, have your personal details shared with all and sundry and find your e-mail inbox clogged with adverts you never asked for.

But it is quite easy to make you and your computer much less vulnerable to these dangers.

Ultimate sanction

One of the easiest ways to avoid many common problems is to stop using Microsoft software.

Microsoft has become a target because its software is so ubiquitous. The vast majority of viruses, browser vulnerabilities and exploits are aimed at Microsoft software and if you stop using them you would avoid many of them.

Basic security steps
Use anti-virus software and keep it up to date
Regularly patch programs
Keep separate e-mail addresses
Use a firewall
Be wary of unsolicited e-mail
Don't open all e-mail attachments
Don't reply to spam e-mails
The ultimate step would be to use a Mac or install Linux on your PC, though migrating to open source software can be a bit challenging for many people.

Almost as good would be to stop using Microsoft programs to read your e-mail, browse the web or run a web server.

There are plenty of alternatives to Internet Explorer, Outlook and Microsoft's Internet Information Server that work just as well.

Many are free and can be downloaded via the web or found on the cover disks that adorn many computer magazines.

If you cannot bear to part with Microsoft programs, then at least make sure that you install the latest security patches for vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer, Outlook and IIS and other programs such as its instant messenger.

You should not be without anti-virus software and must ensure that it is kept up to date.

If you have a broadband net connection, get a firewall. Many are free and all should stop people finding and compromising your PC.

They can also stop programs you use sharing information about you and your machine without your permission.

If you are worried about forgetting passwords or exposing them unnecessarily, it might be worth using a password safe. This piece of software puts them in one location, though it is protected by yet another password.

Message log

Using e-mail is fraught with peril. The basic rule is to be suspicious of anything unexpected.

Do not click on messages from strangers bearing attachments. Many of the most successful viruses hide in the add-on files.

Combination lock, Eyewire
Put your passwords in a safe
Equally, if you find an attachment on a message from a friend who rarely sends them, regard it with suspicion.

For the sake of your privacy, it is worth maintaining several separate e-mail addresses for the different things you do online.

Keep the one you use to swap messages with those close to you separate from any that you use in discussion groups or instant message systems.

If you have your own webpage avoid putting your personal e-mail address on it.

Companies that send spam, or unsolicited commercial e-mail, regularly harvest e-mail addresses from anywhere they can find them.

It is easy to drop a disposable address if it becomes a source of spam. With a few addresses it is also easier to spot who has been selling it on.

Avoid responding to spam that assures you it will remove you from the mailing list. By responding you show the address is live and it could attract more unwanted mail.

You and yours

Dropping Microsoft will help protect your privacy a little, the rest is up to you.

The most important thing to remember is that when browsing do not surrender personal information unnecessarily.

Separate e-mail accounts could protect your privacy
It is reasonable for banks and credit card companies to ask for identification but there are many other sites that demand as much but give little in return.

These sites simply do not have good reasons for collecting personal information and you should avoid giving it where possible.

You can check you are not leaking information inadvertently by visiting a site that reveals what your browser says about you.

The same sites have a host of resources and tools that let you plug the holes.

One of the most useful to get is a program that lets you see and manage cookies - the small text files that many websites use to identify you.

Most cookies are helpful and let you bypass sign-on screens but others just keep an eye on your web habits.

It might also be worth getting a credit card with a low limit for your online purchases.

See also:

24 Oct 00 | Science/Nature
12 Jun 02 | Politics
05 Oct 00 | Science/Nature
29 Sep 02 | Science/Nature
06 Feb 01 | Science/Nature
20 Aug 01 | Science/Nature
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