To see the e-mail I get every day from readers about security issues is to develop a deep discomfort with the state of computing today. Keeping a Windows PC safe can demand a high degree of vigilance -- if cars needed the same constant care and feeding, the Beltway would revert to a country byway.
And yet all these attacks by viruses, worms, spyware and browser hijackers could have been prevented with some initial effort. It's completely feasible to put a computer on the Internet -- even one running Windows, the most attacked, least secure operating system around -- and never suffer a single successful attack.
Transcript: Rob was online to discuss this article and answer holiday gadget buying questions.
Here's what to do to make that possible, starting -- as many people will this week -- when you take it out of the box and plug it in. Most of these steps apply only to Windows, but some pertain to Mac OS X as well.
Step one is to barricade your Internet connection with a firewall. Without this, network worms such as Blaster can try to sneak onto your computer the instant it goes online, even if you don't run a single Internet program.
On any Windows XP machine running Microsoft's Service Pack 2 update, a firewall should be on already. (If a new Windows computer doesn't have SP2, as evidenced by a Security Center control panel, take it back to the store -- there's no excuse for that not to be preinstalled.) On an older Windows machine, open the Network Connections control panel, right-click the icon for your connection, click the Advanced tab and click the checkbox under Internet Connection Firewall.
On a Mac, the built-in firewall must be switched on: Open the System Preferences window, select the Sharing category and then click the Firewall tab.
Step two is to download and install every security patch available. Don't do anything else online until the process concludes. In Windows, select Windows Update from the Start Menu's All Programs listing; in Mac OS X, select Software Update from the Apple-icon menu. Then set your computer to download future fixes automatically (you should need to do this only in pre-SP2 versions of Windows XP, where you'd open the System control panel and click the Automatic Updates tab).
The next three steps apply only to Windows; Mac users can skip ahead.
Step three is to activate and update the antivirus software on your computer. Most new PCs include only 90 days of updates, after which your protection will evaporate -- without a rap sheet on the latest viruses, your antivirus software can't identify them. Find out when your free coverage will end, then make a note in your calendar to renew your subscription before then. (If paying $20 or so for a year of virus protection bugs you, try repairing an infection.)
Step four is to update three core Internet programs, since older versions can suffer from security flaws. Get the latest versions of Microsoft's Windows Media Player (www.microsoft.com/windowsmedia/), RealNetworks' RealPlayer (www.real.com) and Sun Microsystems' Java software (www.java.com).