Staying safe online, Part II: Malware

As we learned in the first installment of this series, there are several attack vectors that spammers can use to compromise your system via email. Similarly, there are many types of computer programs that can infect your system via Web sites, social networks, software downloads, USB and optical drives, and peer-to-peer networks.

These programs include viruses, Trojans, worms, spyware, adware, and keyloggers. Collectively, these nefarious programs are called malware. Malware is software that compromises the operation of a system by performing an unauthorized function or process.

With so many different malware threats, how can you protect your system? Here is a list of seven things you can do right now to harden your defenses against the most common threats:

How To Defend Against Malware

1.   Keep Your Operating System Updated

The best way to keep your OS up-to-date is to set it to check for, and automatically download, updates. This will ensure that you receive any necessary security patches in a timely manner.

In Windows, you can do this by going to:  Start  > Control Panel > System and Security > Windows Update. You want to choose the “Install updates automatically (recommended)” option from the drop-down menu.

update settings

If you have a Mac, OS X automatically checks for software updates on a weekly basis. You can choose a different schedule, or check manually if you don’t have a continuous Internet connection.

While I’m on the topic of security patches/updates, be sure to keep your Web browser(s) updated at all times as well.

NOTE: I can’t overstress the importance of keeping your OS updated. If you do nothing else on this list, this is the one recommendation that you cannot afford to ignore.

2. Use Windows Defender Antivirus

There are a lot of companies offering antivirus software, both paid and free. But, if you’re a Windows user (like the vast majority of my readers), your best bet is to use the built-in antivirus package that comes bundled with the OS.

Windows Defender was first released as a free anti-spyware program download for Windows XP, shipped with Windows Vista and Windows 7, and made into a full antivirus program replacing Microsoft Security Essentials as part of Windows 8 and later versions. Before Windows 8, Windows Defender merely protected against spyware. It included a number of real-time security agents that monitored several common areas of Windows for changes which might have been caused by spyware. It also included the ability to easily remove installed ActiveX software. Windows Defender featured integrated support for Microsoft SpyNet that allows users to report to Microsoft what they consider to be spyware, and what applications and device drivers they allow to be installed on their system. Protection against viruses was added in Windows 8. Windows Defender in Windows 8 resembled Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) and used the same virus definitions.

In Windows 10, Windows Defender settings are controlled by the Settings app. Familiarize yourself with these settings and modify them if you’re technically proficient. Most users, however, shouldn’t have to touch them.

3.   Always Use A Firewall

A firewall is a software or hardware-based network security system that controls the incoming and outgoing network traffic by analyzing data packets and determining whether they should be allowed through or not based on a set of rules. A firewall establishes a barrier between a trusted, secure internal network and another network (e.g., the Internet) that is not assumed to be secure and trusted.

Many operating systems include software-based firewalls to protect against threats from the public Internet. Furthermore, many routers that pass data between networks contain firewall components and, conversely, many firewalls can perform basic routing functions.

If you haven’t already done so, you should seriously consider installing firewall software. Windows users can activate their built-in firewall by going to Start  > Control Panel > System and Security >Windows Firewall and selecting “Turn Windows Firewall on or off” at the left side of your screen. Next, simply click the “Turn on Windows Firewall” radio button for each private and public network.

windows_firewall1

A properly configured firewall will prevent unauthorized access to your PC and give you additional protection against the most common worms and Trojans.

A firewall by itself will not eliminate the threat of viruses. However, when used in concert with an up-to-date OS, antivirus software, and the Task Manager (#4 below), it will add an extra layer of protection and security.

4. Use the uBlock Origin Browser Extension

uBlock Origin is a free and open sourcecross-platform browser extension for content-filtering, including ad-blocking. The extension is available for many browsers: SafariChromeChromiumEdgeFirefox, and Opera. uBlock Origin has received praise from several technology websites, and is reported to be much less memory-intensive than other extensions with similar functionality. 

uBlock origin will protect you from most of the malware that your antivirus doesn’t even look for. Specifically, in-browser JavaScript exploits that often looks like normal web traffic.

You can add uBlock Origin to your browser by going into your browser Settings and searching for it under Extensions. Once you find it, install it into your browser and you’re good to go.

5.   Master Your Task Manager

Windows Task Manager is a system monitor application that provides information about computer performance and currently running applications, processes, and CPU usage. You can invoke the Task Manager by pressing CTRL + ALT + DEL. Under the Processes tab, you’ll see a list of your system’s currently running processes. A process is an instance of a computer program that is being executed. Depending on the OS, a process may be made up of multiple threads of execution that execute instructions concurrently.

Using Task Manager in conjunction with a Web site like processlibrary.com, you can identify any potentially harmful processes running on your system. Processlibrary.com is a free online resource library which contains descriptions of more than 9,000 different processes along with information on security threat levels, if any, for each process as well as how to remove any malicious code.

6.   Backup Your Files

No matter how well you secure your system, or how well you maintain it, there is always the chance that malware, a hacker, theft, a catastrophic event, or a complete hard drive or system failure will come between you and your precious files. So, I’m a big believer in always maintaining backups.

If you are a casual PC user, you can probably get away with backing up all of your files to another location on a weekly basis. If, however, you are a ‘power user’—meaning that you spend all day writing software or creating mission critical computer files that are not easily duplicated—you must get into the habit of backing up your files on a daily basis.

There are several good utilities that will automate the backup process for you, many of which come bundled with a computer’s OS, and it is well worth your time to find out which package best fits your particular needs and budget so you can set-up a schedule of automated backups.

7.   Practice Safe Media Hygiene

Don’t ever plug someone else’s USB drive into one of your computers. Furthermore, never use a USB drive to transfer files from one of your employer’s computers to your home computer—and vice-versa.

While I’m on the topic, never accept a free promotional USB drive as a gift, or pick up a USB drive that you find lying around somewhere (there is evidence which suggests that this is how the Stuxnet worm was implanted).

Why all of the USB-powered paranoia? Because, USB drives make it staggeringly easy to spread malware. I won’t bore you with the technical details, but anyone who is serious about Information Security only trusts USB drives which they purchased themselves in a sealed package from a reputable vendor.

When you do purchase a new USB drive, immediately erase all of the adware/bloatware that the manufacturer installed on it; and only use the drive to transfer files between your own systems (which you know are free of malware).

Many of these rules also apply to the use of optical disks (CD-R, DVD-R, etc.), so proceed accordingly.

Email and cloud storage services are usually preferable methods by which to share files with other users because the vast majority of these service providers include excellent malware scanning as part of their offerings. Notwithstanding, only download file attachments from trusted sources (see the first article in this series for more on that topic).

 8.   Use Your Head

If you spend most of your online time at shady gambling Web sites, free adult content sites, or illegal peer-to-peer file sharing sites, there is a very good chance that you are going to get hit with a malware infection or become the victim of a hacker. So, a little common sense goes a long way.

The above list is by no means comprehensive, and there is a lot more that you can do to protect yourself from malware. But, if you implement these suggestions, you’ll be far less likely to suffer a malware infection and, if you do, you’ll be in a much better position to deal with it.

Edited: February 5, 2018 by Author

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