PC security: Your essential software toolbox

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Inappropriate content

If children use your computer, you should look at ways to block inappropriate content and online predators. Even if children aren’t searching for unsuitable content, they could still stumble across it in searches, find it via links or advertisements, or even access it directly by mistyping a site address.

Enable Parental Controls in Windows: With the parental controls in Windows Vista and later versions (accessible through the Control Panel), you can determine when your kids can use the computer, which games and applications they can run, and the types of websites they can visit. The feature also provides activity reporting, so you can keep an eye on their computer usage.

Windows includes Parental Controls to help you monitor your children’s computer usage.

Activate OpenDNS for Web filtering: As I mentioned earlier, OpenDNS is an online service that offers content filtering. But in addition to stopping malware and phishing sites, OpenDNS can block adult-oriented sites and other online material that may be inappropriate for children.

Even if you use the built-in Windows Parental Controls, OpenDNS is worth trying since it provides a second layer of protection. OpenDNS can also safeguard all computers and devices on your network when you configure the service on your router. You can use the free OpenDNS FamilyShield service without even creating an account. And if you wish to selectively block certain content categories, you can create a free or paid account with the OpenDNS Home or Premium DNS service.

Enable search engine filtering: Since children can encounter all sorts of inappropriate content in searches, consider enabling search filtering for the popular websites. You can do so in the preferences screens for Google and Yahoo. For YouTube, click the Safety Mode link at the bottom of any page.

Use SocialShield for social network monitoring: Avira’s free SocialShield service helps you keep an eye on your children’s Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and MySpace accounts. It analyzes their public and private posts, photos, friends, and so on to alert you to anything that might compromise your children’s online safety.

Device and data theft

Not all security risks come by way of the Internet: You never know when a thief might try to steal your equipment. Although this is obviously more of a concern for laptops and mobile devices, theft is one of the simplest, yet most damaging, threats.

Even if you have set a Windows password, thieves might still be able to access your personal files and passwords, as well as other bits of sensitive data. They could remove your Windows password (which isn’t difficult) and log in to your Windows account, boot your computer into Linux (which bypasses Windows completely), or remove the hard drive and connect it to another computer.

Encrypting your drive will prevent those types of attacks. A thief could still delete your data from an encrypted drive, but the crook wouldn’t be able to access it. If you’re using an Ultimate or Enterprise edition of Windows Vista or later, you can use Windows BitLocker to encrypt your drive. If you’re using another version or edition of Windows, check out the open-source DiskCryptor utility.

An alternative to encrypting your entire hard drive is to encrypt only your most sensitive files, such as financial reports and confidential work documents. You won’t be able to protect some data (such as saved browser passwords) under this scheme, but taking this approach is better than doing nothing. If you’re running a Professional, Business, Ultimate, or Enterprise edition of Windows, you can use the built-in Encrypting File System feature, which you can turn on through the properties of a file or folder. If you’re on a Home edition of Windows, or if your computers do not all run the premium editions, you might turn to TrueCrypt to encrypt the files or folders you want to protect.

Wireless and mobile security

Outside of your PC, you can take other steps to keep your data safe.

Turn on Wi-Fi encryption: Most wireless routers don’t turn security on by default. Enable encryption to prevent snoops from entering your network and perhaps capturing your traffic and passwords. For a home or small office, use at least WPA2-Personal (PSK) security, in which you create a password on the router and then enter it into computers and devices when connecting. For a larger business, choose WPA2-Enterprise security, which uses an authentication server or hosted service and requires users to have unique usernames and passwords.

Use a strong Wi-Fi security password: Even if you decide to set up WPA2-Personal (PSK) security on your wireless router, you're still at risk if you make a weak password that can be cracked. To ensure that malicious parties can’t break into your Wi-Fi, use a complex password. You can use up to 63 characters, including lowercase and uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols. Don’t use any recognizable words or phrases; gibberish like a8F#wM1(C9*!q$JyP@i^ is ideal. And so you don’t forget it, you might write it on a sticky note and attach it to the bottom of your router, or save it on your desktop PC in a Word or plain-text file.

Password-protect your smartphone and tablet: Don’t forget about the security of your mobile devices. Losing your smartphone or tablet can cost you money, time, and privacy. Your first line of defense should be to set a lock-screen PIN or password on your phone or tablet so that other people can’t use it if you lose it. And if your smartphone or tablet supports encryption, you should turn the feature on so that a thief can’t retrieve your personal data from the device without considerable effort.

Install security apps on your phone and tablet: No-cost, easy-to-use security utilities such as Avast Free Mobile Security, AVG Mobi­lation Anti-Virus Free, or Bitdefender Mobile Security can help you locate and secure your smartphone or tablet if it is lost or stolen. Most of these security apps let you log on to a website where you can see the location of your lost device on a map, make it scream or sound an alarm (useful if you lose it in between couch cushions), lock it in case you don’t have a PIN or password currently set, and even wipe the data if you think you won’t be getting it back. These apps also have antivirus features to help block mobile malware, an emerging threat.

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