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Commentary: Make your home PC an ‘e-fortress’

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

I’m a computer geek. My first job in the Air Force was computer programming. Before I joined the Air Force, I worked in the personal computer repair business. Among failed hard drives and lightning-fried modems, I handled a lot of virus-infected PCs.

Computer threats then were different. There were no Internet-enabled viruses, and spyware was unheard-of. Unfortunately, threats have evolved with the rest of PC technology—today’s computer owner must be aware of a full spectrum of threats and prepared to prevent them with an array of firewall, antivirus and anti-spyware programs.

Viruses, once designed to break hard drives, are now programmed to break networks. The “Love Bug” virus first struck business and government networks in May 2000. Within 24 hours, the virus caused about $2.5 billion in lost time, PC cleanup and data recovery efforts.

In 2003, viruses caused an estimated $55 billion in damages. Present-day viruses turn computers into “zombies” that can send out thousands of spam e-mails per day or launch attacks on other networks.

A more recent threat is spyware, which can steal computer resources, cause your computer to become unreliable or even steal information and passwords. Most, but not all, spyware infections will show symptoms. Keyloggers, on the other hand, usually show no symptoms at all, and are designed to record every keystroke and password you type.

If you’ve already built an “e-fortress” around your home PC, you may not be too worried about spyware or virus threats. If you haven’t, or if you’re less than completely certain about your PC’s defenses, take a look at the following tips:

• Download, install and regularly update antivirus software. The Joint Task Force for Global Network Operations offers free downloads of commercial antivirus products through their Web site, www.cert.mil, to anyone using a computer on a military network. Department of Defense employees may download the software, burn it onto a CD and use it on home computers at no cost as long as they remain DoD-employed.

• Install and regularly update at least one anti-spyware application. Computing Web sites have information on effective anti-spyware programs, many of which are free for home use.

• Use at least one firewall on your home computer—preferably two. Most internet routers provide a built-in firewall. A good router-firewall combination will make your computers almost invisible to attackers.

• Consider using an alternative browser, as many virus and spyware authors target default browsers packaged with operating systems. Many browsers available on the Web are free downloads. No matter what browser you use, update it regularly to fix new vulnerabilities as they are discovered.

• Disable the autoplay feature on your CD-Rom drives. Disabling autoplay will thwart software on music CDs that automatically installs itself, possibly placing you at greater risk for a virus or spyware infection.

• Finally, don’t use an administrator account for everyday computer use. Many spyware applications require administrator access to install themselves.

Your home computer can be as safe and reliable as you want to make it. The end result will be fewer expensive trips to the PC repair shop and a more enjoyable computing experience