NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, March 2003
New Year's Resolutions and Your Computer
by Ira Wilsker
(click to email author)

This is the time of the year that many of us make New Year's resolutions, promising to keep them, and eating black-eyed peas to insure our good luck and good fortune. Despite the many hours per week that a lot of us spend on our computers, we often neglect resolutions that can make the time we spend computing more enjoyable, productive, efficient, and secure.

  • Resolve to reduce Internet irritants, those pesky spam mail solicitations, pop-up ads, assaults on our machines from hackers, and attacks by computer viruses.

  • Resolve to follow the three most important words in computing, which are: Backup, Backup, and Backup.

  • Resolve to finally dump those big national Internet providers that so many of you subscribe to and complain about, but never get around to canceling. Resolve to subscribe to a local provider.

I hate the spam mail that I receive. I am tired of the solicitations for personal physical enhancement, cheap prescription drugs (often without a prescription), Nigerians offering to make me rich, home refinancing, and lonely females offering to make me happy. Harvesting our email addresses from a variety of sources is something that we can do little to prevent. Checking with our internet service provider (ISP) and software publishers on their privacy policies, and selecting the possible option to "opt-out" of their giving away or selling our personal information may help reduce future spam, but will do little to stop the spam we are currently receiving. Sadly, some of the largest national ISPs default to "opt-in", meaning that if subscribers do not explicitly tell them on an annual basis that our information is not to be sold, then they will imply our consent to sell our personal information. Many software products (and many other consumer items), solicit our email address with the product registration. Reading the fine print will typically offer the choice to opt-out, and hopefully prevent the company from selling our information to third parties.

Many of our local ISPs now offer email filtering as either a part of their basic service, or as a nominally priced premium service. Using the SpamCop blacklist, or third party filtering provided by companies such as Postini or BrightMail, our local ISPs tend to filter out more spam mail than do some of the large national providers, many of which offer no spam filtering service. As a bonus, some of the email filtering services also remove many of the email born viruses before they can reach our computers. Either as a freestanding product or as a supplement to ISP filtering, third party spam filtering services or software should be considered.

If using broadband Internet, such as cable or DSL, it is imperative that a good software firewall be utilized. For dialup users, a firewall would also be a good idea. A firewall can make it more difficult for hackers to get access to your computer while online, and can help reduce the chance of a "back-door Trojan" or spyware from sending personal information from your computer to unknown outsiders. As had been discussed in an earlier column, Zone Alarm (http://www.zonelabs.com) and Outpost (http://www.agnitum.com) are excellent firewalls, and free for personal use. In addition to a firewall, an antivirus program, frequently updated, is a necessity for all computer users. To try to eliminate the spyware that may be infesting our computers, and transmitting our personal information to unknown parties in cyberspace, the use of a spyware killer is also important. One of the best ones available is the free Ad-Aware, available from http://www.lavasoftusa.com. Be sure to keep firewalls, antivirus, and spyware utilities current, as their publishers often post updates to the software.

Another way to help secure the Windows PC is with the "critical updates" released by Microsoft. In 2002, Microsoft released about 70 critical updates. These updates typically close newly discovered security flaws found in browsers, email programs, media players, operating systems, office software, and other vulnerable products. These updates can be freely obtained and installed by going online, and clicking on START - WINDOWS UPDATE and allowing Microsoft to send individualized updates. One warning to users of Windows 95; check for updates immediately, as Microsoft is about to cease all support and updates for that version of Windows.

Hard drives are machines. They all do eventually wear out and fail. A full backup of the hard drive, with periodic incremental backups of new files, will enable the disaster of a hard drive failure to be easily recoverable. At an absolute minimum, critical data files should be backed up frequently. Backing up to writable CDs or DVDs, or an external hard drive, using any of a variety of backup utilities, is great insurance. One step in recovering from a hard drive failure is often booting off of a floppy; now is a great time to make that bootable floppy, sometimes called a "rescue disk".

Most of us spend a great deal of time online, and many of us also overspend on internet services that bog us down with ads, spam mail, slow service, busy signals, and frequently knock us offline when least expected. Many of you also overpay for the inferior service that some of the large national carriers provide. Switching from the national carrier to a local ISP, such as Eonet, advertised on this page, can be a great move in terms of improved service, as well as a big money saver. Local ISPs may save those who use the national services over $200 per year, providing better service for far less money.

Finally, resolve to stay informed by continuing to read this column every week, and listening to my twice-weekly radio shows on KLVI.

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using the article as long as it is kept in context, with proper credit given to the author. This article is brought to you by the Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization to which this user group belongs.

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