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Nickname:?Clive Maxfield???? Articles(444)???? Visits(533049)???? Comments(79)???? Votes(236)???? RSS
There is so much amazingly cool "stuff" to see and do that I'm amazed I find the time to get any real work done. In my blog I will waffle on about the books I'm reading, the projects I'm building, and the weird and wonderful websites I blunder across. Please Email Me if you see anything you think will "tickle my fancy."
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Posted: 08:02:24 PM, 29/01/2015

Making your system cyber-secure

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Until recently, I was under the impression that my computer system in general -- and my precious data in particular -- was reasonably secure against the forces of evil, but then my eyes were opened to the grim and grizzly truth.

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As you may recall, a little over a month ago, my main work computer shrugged off this mortal coil and headed onwards and upwards to its next plane of existence (see The death of my computer tower).

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To be honest, I'd been having problems for a few months before the end came. First of all, the poor little rascal started to run really, really slowly. The IT guy for the company in whose building I have my office was kind enough to come up and take a look. He installed a few software tools and then informed me that I had tens of thousands of virus/malware instantiations hogging my memory and CPU resources.

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Goodness only knows where these came from because I'm a good boy and I only go to trusted sites. But the creators of malware are devious and cunning and not very nice people at all (I'm sorry to be so harsh, but there we are).

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The IT guy performed his magic and removed everything untoward, and things seemed to get better for a time, but then my machine started locking up. Eventually, it gasped its last, so I called my chum Daniel at GigaParts, which is located a few miles from my office. Just a few hours later, I was happily cackling over my new Zero Pro Z7 Plus machine with its quad-core Intel Core i7-4790 processor running at 3.6 GHz, its 16GB of DDR3-1600 RAM, its enterprise-grade Intel Pro 2500 Series 240GB SSD (solid state drive), and its nVidia Quadro K620 Workstation GPU (just reciting this list of goodies gives me goosebumps and sends shivers of excitement running up and down my spine).

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My first task was to install my anti-virus software. I use Microsoft Security Essentials because (a) it's free and (b) someone whose opinion I trust recommended it to me. Now, although Microsoft Security Essentials is designed to protect against a wide range of malicious software, including viruses, spyware, and other potentially unwanted software, I also use Spybot Search & Destroy because -- once again -- doing so was recommended by someone whose opinion I hold in high esteem.

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Next, I started reinstalling and configuring all of my software packages, including Microsoft Office and Microsoft Visio. I then downloaded my web browser of choice -- Firefox -- and proceeded to set up my favorite tabs and suchlike. This is a time-consuming pain in the rear-end, because it involves lots of passwords and suchlike, but once it's done it makes my life much, much easier. By this time, I must admit that I was starting to get rather excited.

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Once I'd sorted out the basics, I began to download and install my preferred freeware programs, such as Paint.net, PDFCreator, ManyDownloader, and a number of others. It was after loading these programs that I started to run into problems, such as the fact that a new toolbar magically appeared in my Firefox browser, which also started presenting me with annoying adverts above and below each page I wanted to view.

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I'm suspicious of PDFCreator, although I can't say for sure. What I did say at the time isnt printable here. What I can say is that it took me ages to discover how to uninstall and reinstall Firefox to my satisfaction (you also have to remove a bunch of folders by hand).

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And then something happened that blew my socks off (note to self: must start wearing elasticated socks). In a comment to my Dead Computer column, someone said "Here's an article on how to spot and avoid some of these programs."

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Well, I am delighted to report that is that this is a brilliant, eye-opening article. It's a bit annoying that the presentation format requires you to go through 12 mini-pages, but the content is absolutely fantastic. Each and every one of the tips and tricks described in this blog is spot on -- it should be required reading for everyone who owns a computer. I've bragged on this article to just about everybody I know, and every last one has been extremely surprised.

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But that's not what I wanted to talk to you about...


Overall, I think it's fair to say that I've been feeling reasonably confident regarding the security of my data. All of my precious files are automatically backed-up on DropBox. What this means is that as soon as I create or modify a file, a shadow copy immediately wends its way into the cloud. And, from there, the new version in the cloud is automatically downloaded to any of my other computers that are currently awake (the ones that are turned off will automatically synchronize themselves with the cloud when they are next powered-up).

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This protects me against any of my computers crashing and burning, but there's still a problem. On the same evening that I'd purchased my new computer, whilst driving home in my truck, I was listening to the National Public Radio (NPR) when I heard a report that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

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It seems that there is a new threat out there. A piece of malware that -- if it manages to insinuate itself on your computer -- will encrypt all of your invaluable data files (it will also hard-scrub any shadow copies making it impossible to retrieve the originals). You are subsequently forced to pay a ransom in order to decrypt and access your files again. My understanding is that, until recently, this form of attack was targeted only at large corporations, but that it's now being directed at individuals.

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In my case, the newly encrypted files would be seen as modifications by DropBox, which would happily upload them into the cloud and then replicate them on all of my other machines.

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"Oh dear," I said to myself (or words to that effect).

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The next day I called Daniel at GigaParts to see if he had any suggestions. Happily, it turns out that the folks at GigaParts offer cyber-security services to their customers. Later that day, one of them paid me a visit in my office and loaded a special application that defends against this type of encryption attack onto all of my machines.

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But wait, there's more, because no anti-malware tool can assure safety -- existing malware is always evolving and new forms of malware are appearing on the scene all the time. The only way to guarantee security from malware is to never connect your computer to any network (physical or otherwise), to never load any third-party software, and to never even plug in a USB memory stick. If you do all of this, of course, then there's not much point in having a computer in the first place.

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The next best thing is to have some sort of "air gap" between your computer and an archive of your data, so that's what I did. I purchased a 1TB My Passport Ultra USB 3.0 portable hard drive (FYI, this is powered by its USB cable).

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Once a week, I connect this drive to my computer, take a backup of all my data files, and then physically disconnect (air gap) the drive from the computer again. On the one hand, this is something of a pain; on the other hand, the feeling of security it bequeaths me is worth its weight in gold.

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So that's the current state of play in Max's World (where the colors are brighter, the butterflies are bigger, the birds sing sweeter, and the beer is plentiful and cold). How about you? What anti-malware tools, techniques, and practices do you use? What would you recommend, and what would you not touch with a ten-foot pole?

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