Wednesday, January 11, 2012

12 for 12: Tech Resolutions

Start the new year with technology resolutions. These are the kind of resolutions that are certainly realistic, and they don't involve exercising (ok, maybe your brain a little), or losing weight, or any of the other things you'd normally promise yourself you'd do in the new year. I won't delve into how to do these things in this post, but I have in past posts, or will in future posts. So, without further introduction here is my list of twelve tech resolutions you can accomplish in twelve months (not in any particular order):

  1. Tech Devices: Did you get a new tech toy for the holidays? Many devices such as tablets, smartphones, and e-readers require you to have an account, password, and computer that are all tied together. Resolve to set up your own device, or re-set up your device if someone else did it for you using their account information. Learn how to set it up for yourself, use it, and manage it since you'll be the one paying for apps and reading material, keeping the firmware up to date, and managing the device on your computer.

  2. Wireless Router: Resolve to, at the very least, change the admin password to your router's settings to something strong. Absolutely change it if you are still using the factory default password, and consider hiding your SSID so your neighbors don't see that you have a wireless network when their device sees the list of networks in the area.

  3. Passwords: Resolve to change passwords for every account you have so every one of them is different, and I mean very different. Make them strong. Check all your passwords for strength. Passwords once thought to be strong may no longer be. Use a password manager that supports strong encryption. A password manager will help you maintain a secure list of passwords as well as offer a safe place to include software licenses, credit card numbers, and notes you want to keep locked up. Some password managers integrate with your Internet browsers making it easier to login to sites while still maintaining its separate security. Many of them also work with portable devices such as smart phones and tablets.

  4. Secure Browsing: Resolve to update your Internet browsers.  The programmers of IE, Chrome, Firefox, and Safari (as well as many of the lesser known browsers) make regular improvements to their browsers to patch vulnerabilities and add functionality.  Having a better built browser means fewer vulnerabilities.  And, most exploits hit us through vulnerabilities in our web browsers.  So, it only makes sense to keep these up to date. When conducting a personal transaction on the Internet via email, retail purchases, or banking; be sure that the connection you are using is secure.  Anytime you are required by a site to provide credentials check for a valid site certificate by looking for the letter "s" after the "http" in the address bar, and check for the padlock icon in the browser's address bar.

  5. Email: Resolve to think before you click. Don't open spam messages, don't click on links in spam messages, and don't load images in email messages by default. Images can contain a pixel that could alert a spammer that your account really does exist, thus leading to more spam. Don't forward chain email messages. Chain mail is a form of spam and considered a nuisance.  You know the ones I am talking about: "reply to this message to the person who sent it to you and ten other people you know..."

  6. Anti-malware Protection: Resolve to maintain a current subscription to either a paid or free anti-malware/anti-virus application. Don't assume that because your computer came with security software that it is actually doing something. Most people don't realize they bought a computer with a trial version, and that they have to purchase a subscription to keep it up to date. So, install a reputable security suite such as Microsoft Security Essentials, AVG, Kaspersky, Symantec, Eset, Bit Defender, Avast, Vipre, Ad-Aware, or any other legitimate, well reviewed security application. Also, be sure you check the settings within the app to be sure your system has live protection, scans internal and external disks, and is set to regularly download the latest updates.

  7. Firewall: Firewalls keep the bad guys from using your network to hide their tracks when perpetrating their crimes, and from snooping around on your personal network. Resolve to setup a firewall if you don't already have one. And, if you do have one, be sure it is turned on. While your Internet provider may be offering you antivirus protection, they are not providing you with firewall protection. The firewall might be built into your modem if it is a combination modem/router, but you still need to turn it on. Use a strong password to protect your firewall from unauthorized changes. If you travel with a laptop to connect to networks other than your own, be sure to use a software firewall to protect against attacks over that shared network. All modern operating systems have a built in firewall, look for it in the control panel or system settings.

  8. System Warnings: Resolve to pay close attention to pop-up warnings from your system tray, or other security messages. Messages appear for a reason. Read them, and ask yourself if changes to the system should be allowed. Know the name of your security software. There is a lot of scareware that looks like real security software, but isn't. It's malware pretending to be your antivirus application alerting you that it can clean an infection it found on your computer. It uses social engineering tactics to get you to click on it, and when you do that's when things get worse.

  9. System Optimization: Resolve to do some housekeeping on your computer. If you think you need a new computer, because it is running slow, chances are it just needs a tune up. Often, system resources are being hogged by a plethora of programs running that don't need to be; consider what the most important ones are, and turn off the rest. If your computer is a few years old, and you've never cleared your browser's history, cookies, or cache it might be time for a fresh start. Periodically defragment your hard drive. If you are a Macintosh user this will happen automatically.  If you are a Windows 7 user you can schedule the system to do it for you. If you are a Windows XP user you will need to do this manually. Uninstall applications you don't use, clear temporary files, and other system cache. I like a program called "IceClean" for Mac OS X to help take care of this task. Windows has a build in Disk Cleanup utility to do essentially the same thing as IceClean. Also, Mac users should periodically run a permissions repair on the startup disk to keep the system and apps humming along.

  10. Reboot: Resolve to reboot. If you leave your computer on for days, weeks, even months, at the very least reboot it once in a while. Its good for the system to get a clean start in order to clear memory, and temporary files. Rebooting can resolve odd little problems that seem to crop up from nowhere. Reboot as a periodic maintenance task to keep your system happy.

  11. Backup: Resolve to backup your data, even if you think your data isn't important. It is not a matter of "if", but a matter of "when". Eventually, you will be looking for a picture or document that is now lost, corrupt, or is a version that has saved changes you wish weren't there. A backup will allow you to restore to a previous version, or recover a file thought to be gone forever. So, backup to an external hard drive, the cloud, a USB thumb drive, or archive to CD-R. And, backup with regularity. Once a week at a minimum, and consider using a program that let's you automate and schedule the backup.

  12. Electronics Recycling: Resolve to recycle your old electronics. E-waste is one of the fastest growing problems facing the world today, and it is largely ignored by consumers. Many municipalities, and states now require the proper disposal and recycling of electronics. Many counties have recycling events where you can drop of your electronics at no charge. Some, for a nominal fee, will collect from your house at a scheduled time.