Three Tips to Keep Your PC Safe

These are good reminders that you can’t just plug a new PC in and expect it to work as advertised. Before you go online to download updates, music, online programs (like Printkey, Jing, or other programs I can’t live without), install the alarm systems:

Keeping That New PC Clean and Pure

Published: September 2, 2009

School starts soon, and many people are getting spanking-new computers. Ah, the joy of a new and more powerful toy — and a clean slate.

Illustration by Randall Enos

A new PC, whether you know it or not, may well have freed you from many malicious programs that steal credit card numbers and other valuable information or otherwise obstruct your safe and private use of the Internet. Now is the time — while you’re getting everything set up just the way you like it — to take some steps to keep your new machine clean and free of malware. Here is what you need to do before you do anything else.


Do this before you even connect your computer to the Internet. Firewalls prevent certain unwanted traffic from reaching your computer, including worms that spread through network connections. New laptops and desktops with Windows Vista (and, come Oct. 22, the next version of the operating system, Windows 7) and netbooks using Windows XP SP2 or higher have a firewall that is built in and turned on by default. You can make sure all is well by going to the Windows Security Center, clicking Start, then Control Panel, then Security Center and Windows Firewall.

Mac users can check and adjust their firewall settings by clicking on the Apple icon and going to System Preferences and clicking on Security and then Firewall. At a minimum, choose “allow only essential services.” A better option is to select “set access for specific services and applications” and play gatekeeper, allowing programs to connect as you need them, said Rich Mogull, founder of the security consultant firm Securosis.


Even though you have a new machine, chances are that security fixes have been issued since the manufacturer loaded the software, so you will want to download those as soon as you get online.

Your new PC may prompt you to check for updates from Microsoft, but, if not, open Windows Update by clicking the Start button, then All Programs and then Windows Update. On the left pane, click “check for updates.” (For more information about Windows Security, see

To help you keep Microsoft products up to date, Windows will prompt owners of new machines to sign up for automatic updates. You will see a screen asking if you want to “Help protect Windows automatically.” Choose the first option, “Use recommended settings,” so you get everything and don’t have to worry about it again.

Barring an urgent problem, updates come out on the second Tuesday of the month. To schedule exactly what time your updates are installed — say at 3 a.m., when you are asleep — open Windows Update and select Change Settings and make your choices. This is also a good time to turn on the Internet Explorer Phishing Filter, which can help keep you from turning over personal information to the wrong people.

For Mac users, your computer will automatically check for updates once a week. If you are a paranoid person, have it check more frequently by clicking Software Update in the System Preferences panel and then choose Daily.


Firewalls won’t help fend off viruses or Trojan horses that can come through e-mail messages, Web sites and pop-up ads. Given the frightening number of malicious programs that aim for Windows PCs, owners of these machines really need to use some security software. There are several free antivirus programs, like AVG 8.5 Free, Avast Antivirus and the forthcoming Microsoft Security Essentials, so even penniless students have no excuse to go without. Note that Vista comes with Windows Defender, which blocks spyware and pop-up ads, and that program can be downloaded free by Windows XP SP2 machines.

Since a lot of malicious programs now come through Web sites, you will also want to use one of the many free tools available to help you avoid malicious sites. Microsoft’s newest browser, Internet Explorer 8, will warn you if you try to visit sites it deems unsafe, deceptive or carriers of a common Web attack type called “cross-site scripting” attacks. Other browsers, including Chrome, Firefox and Safari, also warn users about potentially unsafe sites, using a blacklist kept by Google. There is also McAfee’s SiteAdvisor, a free add-on for the Internet Explorer and Firefox browsers (the latter works on both Windows and Mac), that shows site reputation information within search results pages, including warnings about potentially dangerous sites.

There are few malicious programs that aim for Macs, so an antivirus program isn’t essential at this point. That said, some Mac experts think that the days of peace and security for Macs may be waning. There have a been a few Trojan horses recently, and some Web attacks don’t care which operating system you use. If you frequent file-sharing sites, or your employer requires it, buy a Mac antivirus program.


New Windows PCs typically come loaded with all kinds of third-party programs, many of which you will never use.

“In a lot of cases, that’s extra software that might have vulnerabilities” that hackers could exploit, says Chad Dougherty, a vulnerability analyst at the CERT Program at the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute.

To avoid problems, eliminate the programs you don’t need by clicking the Start button and choosing Control Panel and then Programs to see a list of what is on your machine. Select unwanted programs and then hit the Uninstall button at the top of the program list.

Then sign up for automatic updates from the makers of any software you intend to keep — or that you later install yourself, for that matter. To help you make sure you have checked out everything, download Secunia PSI, a free tool that will help you make sure that all the programs on your PC get security patches.

Speaking of that, always be careful about which software you install from the Internet, whether you have a PC or a Mac. These programs can contain vulnerabilities, and pirated programs and random add-ons may be outright malicious.


Categories: Computer hardware, critical thinking, hacking, problem solving, Tech, tech security | Tags: , , , , , | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “Three Tips to Keep Your PC Safe

  1. I really like your blog and the ideas you have behind everything you have written. You seem to know alot. I am starting my MA in technology and we are exploring blogs right now in our class. I have so many ideas to maybe use blogs in my classroom sometime in the future; there just seems to be so much to do with them and so many advantages. However, no one in my county, that I know of, is utilizing them. I was wondering if you knew how to start or get permission for blogging in the classroom or even outside of the classroom? I have no idea who I would talk to or go to. I know it can be done because I have seen other counties with it on their sites… I just saw your blog title and thought maybe you would be a good person to ask. Thanks again for posting your advice- it is appreciated!

    • Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you enjoy the blog. I went to your Edublog and it looks like you’re figuring things out. It’ll be interesting for other teachers new to tech to experience this learning curve with you. I use WordPress which offers a multitude of ways to share thoughts–pictures, Flikr feeds, html codes for book collections to go with your topics. I’ll bet Edublog does, too, when you get used to it.

      A lot of teachers I know use blogs to encourage students to think about a question, share their thoughts with other students and comment on classmate’s ideas. Blogs are a wonderful Web 2.0 replacement for pencil-paper journals. Besides the obvious writing and thinking skills, they encourage multi-intelligence learning by incorporating videos, sounds, pictures. Be sure to set guidelines so civility, grammar and spelling rules, are maintained.

      I also use a discussion board and a wiki in class. They are student-centered, student-directed. Students not only post their ideas, but decorate the pages as they wish (i.e., format). For olders, I require them to create their own page which is the first step toward programming. Good luck with your classes! Where do you live?

  2. you can do anything with a blog, make a living, communicate, get whatever you need.

  3. fantastic blog! I’m very happy I wandered onto it through google. going to need to add another one to the morning routine.

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