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Computer Security and Online Privacy

Privacy Protection and Fraud Prevention

Privacy
  • Summary
  • Article

Computer Security and Online Privacy

Learn about...

  1. Internet security software
  2. Spam blockers
  3. Privacy tools
  4. Malware
  5. Improving your computer's security
  6. Protecting your family's privacy
  7. Targeted advertising and cookies

Computer Security and Online Privacy

Protecting yourself online is a never-ending journey. Cyber criminals and hackers find new vulnerabilities all the time and the computer security industry moves to stop them. Fortunately you don't have to be a cyber security expert to protect your computer and your personal information.

Internet Security Software – Your First Line of Defense

Before you go online, you should have updated internet security software installed on your computer. You cannot count on security built into your computer's operating system (Windows or Apple) to protect your machine alone. Computer security software usually has these features:

  • An anti-virus program with regular updates that can scan your email

  • Software firewall

  • Anti-spyware

  • Web content filtering

  • Parental controls that allow you to block your child's access to sites you don't want them to see

Among the more popular brands are Norton (Symantec), Bitdefender, Kaspersky, McAfee, and TrendMicro. Since manufacturers are upgrading their products all the time, we recommend you examine reviews by industry experts that are not selling the software before choosing. Consumer Report and PC Magazine would be good places to start.

Many of us already have programs on our machines that can help with privacy intrusion such as spam and cookie management. Most email programs provide some message filtering capability – some harder to master than others.

  • Many Internet security programs do many things including managing cookies and helping to control spam.

  • Web browsers have privacy settings that you can control including to show cookies and allow you to choose which cookies to accept.

  • Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) may provide junk mail filtering.

Looking for "privacy controls," "spam," "email filtering," "email controls," "cookies," under "HELP" on any of these programs should lead you to instructions on how to use these tools. Beyond that here’s some more specific information on spam blocking and other online privacy protection tools.

Spam Blockers

While many Internet Security Suites have included spam controls in their products there are still numerous standalone products and services available – free and pay – that may help control the spam reaching your inbox. Many products reside on your computer and work with your email program. Others are services that don’t require any software on your computer to work. Many work only with a specific email program or specific type of email. No product or service is perfect—incorrect tagging or trashing of email does occur. So look for a program that allows you control over the process or at least allows you to review the culled messages before they are deleted.

Before choosing a product or service, determine what type of email you have. Various types include POP3, IMAP, web-based, AOL, MSN, Juno, Hotmail, Yahoo, and others. If you don’t know what type you have, check with your Internet Service Provider (ISP) (check the customer service web page for starters).

Some programs filter, some just tag messages. Various methods used include black lists, white lists, bad word lists, and Bayesian filters. Make sure you choose a program that uses a combination of methods. If you receive email newsletters, you want to make sure to choose one that allows you to control the process. Many newsletters have had problems with spam blockers inappropriately blocking delivery.

The Tips and help for regular users page at spam.abuse.net has a list of spam e-mail blocking and filtering products and services. Information provided for each item includes operating system, a short description, and whether it is a product or service.

Other Privacy Tools

The EPIC Online Guide to Practical Privacy Tools has short descriptions and links to all sorts of tools to help you preserve privacy. It’s from the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Malware

Malware is short for "malicious software." It includes viruses and spyware that get installed on your computer, phone, or mobile device without your consent. These programs can cause your device to crash and can be used to monitor and control your online activity. Criminals use malware to steal personal information, send spam, and commit fraud. Read more about Malware from the OnGuardOnline.gov site.

Improve Your Computer Security

Keeping your operating system and browser updated and patched is highly recommended. Automatic updates and/or automatic downloading of updates is available for most operating systems, browsers, and security programs.

In terms of browsers, Microsoft's Internet Explorer is the most commonly used browser and therefore most frequently the target of hackers. You can also try using other browsers such as Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, or Apple's Safari through that is no guarantee of security. Whichever brand you use, we recommend you stay on the newest or next to newest version and allow automatic security updates. These updates help fix recently discovered vulnerabilities.

Many homes now use wireless networks. Your financial, personal information and privacy can be at risk using your home wireless network unless you have secured it properly. Most networking components are not secure right out of the box but can be made secure (or more secure) by changing several of the settings. Experts recommend that you secure your home wireless networks by doing the following:

  • Change the default password

  • Restrict access to the network to specific computers

  • Encrypt the data on the network

  • Change the SSID

  • Install a firewall

  • Install and maintain anti-virus software

You can read more about these items in these articles:

To learn more about these cyber security topics and why it is important, read the Cyber Security Tips from US-CERT.

Another site to visit is OnGuardOnline.gov, a federal government site with a variety of tips on online security and scams.

These articles have more information about protecting your privacy both online and off.

Protecting Your Family's Privacy Online

Social Networking sites have become a favorite of children and adults. These sites can pose a risk to your family's personal information but you can take steps to reduce that risk. This article from OnGuardOnline.gov can help – Kids and Socializing Online.

Hardly anyone reads the details of the privacy policy they acknowledge when they use a site. However, reading it is the only way you will see if you are giving away your information in ways you would never intend.

Targeted Advertising

Targeted advertising is becoming more prevalent. Advertising networks use cookies to track the sites you've visited and the searches you've made and then use that information to display ads to you. The premise to targeted advertising, is that if the ads are more relevant to the viewer, then the viewer will click on the ad.

One option is to use the browser settings to manage cookies. Advertising cookies are typically from a third-party. Find your browser cookie settings (In Internet Explorer, look under Internet Options. Cookies setting are located on the Privacy Tab by clicking the Advanced button.) and choose how you want to handle them. Having your browser prompt you for first-party cookies and block all third-party cookies can be a good choice.

You'll also want to check your privacy settings on any site where you have an account. For example, Yahoo allows members to edit their marketing preferences.