Spam, malware, Wi-Fi slurping. Sound nasty? Alex Kidman explains computer security, and how to keep yourself safe from online nasties.

Using technology represents a security risk simply because it’s so common these days. When people kept their money in a mattress under the bed, robbery was a fast route to riches. Now that so many of us have personal information like financial details, photos, work projects and other valuable data on our PCs and phones, these are an inevitable target for attacks. The fact that virtually all PCs are connected to the internet means the attacker can come from anywhere in the world.

Attacks on technology come from a branch of organised crime these days, and their involvement indicates how potentially lucrative it is for thieves. But that doesn’t mean you should give up in despair. You wouldn’t leave the house without locking the front door – making your PC safe doesn’t require any more effort once you know what to look out for and how to avoid it. Here’s a comprehensive guide to the major threats and what to do about them.

Viruses and malware

What are they?

Malware is the general name for any software which tries to install itself on your computer without you knowing about it. Common sub-types of malware include viruses, worms, trojans and adware, but distinguishing these isn’t really helpful – they’re all potential sources of risk. Present-day malware doesn’t want to draw attention to itself; it wants to install itself without you noticing it and then use your computer for nefarious purposes such as stealing personal information, or sending spam (see below) to other machines. Malware which actively seeks to delete information is less common, but a badly infected PC can effectively become unusable anyway.

Malware is distributed by a variety of means, including email, via websites and through file sharing networks. Modern operating systems such as Vista and Mac OS X are designed to stop many obvious malware attacks, but PCs are so complex that new vulnerabilities continually emerge.

How can I stop them?

Security software needs to be installed on every PC in your home, and updated continually to deal with newly discovered threats. Well-configured security products and services do this automatically, and scan your PC on a regular schedule to check for any unwanted intrusions. Most security packages require a monthly or annual subscription fee – a small price to pay relative to the value of information stored on most machines.

Don’t download software from unfamiliar sites; it may well be malware in disguise. Make a habit of searching online for information about any software before installing it. Never view attachments from an email address you don’t recognise.

Source: Australian GO magazine