Basic computer hygiene


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About 90% of environmental rights defenders who took part in the June 2014 survey indicated that they had suffered at least one malware attack during the course of their work. However, they still had not taken sufficient measures to limit future attacks.

Although most said they had anti-virus programmes in their computers, these were not always kept up to date. Some of the licenses of purchased anti-virus programmes had also expired, thus stopping updates of virus definitions. This situation can become critical. As one respondent described,

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Human Rights Defender Testimonies

“Right now, our computers are infested with viruses. Some of our systems have collapsed and our IT officer is working to clean the viruses from our computers and network. We usually get viruses from memory sticks and downloaded files from the internet.” -- Anonymous Environmental Rights Defender, Liberia </div>

The survey found that the most common computer hygiene needs include:

  1. Protection against malware

  2. Keeping computer software up to date

  3. Maintaining backups of information

Taking care of your computer

The first step towards digital security is to keep your computer in good working condition, free of malware and up to date. You will be better able to successfully implement some of the more sophisticated digital technologies and tactics if your computer is well protected from malware.

Protecting your computer against malware

Malware is the general name for any malicious and undesirable software that attacks your computer and prevents it from working correctly. Two common types of malware are viruses and spyware. Viruses get onto your computer through the internet, when you download an infected file, open/save an attachment on your email, or click on a bad link. One of the most common ways to pick up viruses in Africa is from infected movable media such as flash disks/memory sticks.

Why do you need to protect your computer from malware?

Viruses can destroy, damage or infect the information on your computer, including data on external drives. They can also render your computer unusable and make it necessary to re-format your hard disk. They can also take control of your computer and use it to attack your colleagues' computers. Spyware, on the other hand, can steal your sensitive information and make it available to your adversaries.

How do you protect your computer from malware?

Antivirus programmes are your first line of defence against viruses and spyware. To protect your computer against viruses and other malware:

  • Get good antivirus software which also has anti-spyware properties. If your anti-virus software does not have anti-spyware, you should also download anti-spyware software, such as Spybot.
  • Your Anti-virus software should always be kept up to date by connecting to the internet daily so that the program can download the latest virus definitions.
  • Keep the software itself up to date by always downloading the latest version of the software. Normally, the software will inform you when it needs to be updated.
  • If your computer is seriously infected and cannot start, or is too slow for you to run an antivirus scan, you should use an antivirus Rescue CD. Many antivirus companies provide free rescue disks. If you use Avast Antivirus, for instance, you can create your own Rescue Disk by navigating to Tools and selecting Rescue Disk.
  • To guard your computer against malware from malicious websites, you can use the VirusTotal web application. VirusTotal checks suspicious links and files for malware by adding the URL or file to the easy to use VirusTotal online portal. VirusTotal is a free service that analyzes suspicious files and URLs and facilitates the quick detection of viruses, worms, trojans, and all kinds of malware. Avast also has an Online Security plugin for browsers such as Firefox and Google Chrome which offers protection against known phishing and malware sites.

Since the best paid-for anti-virus software can be expensive, you should seriously consider brilliant free and open source anti-virus software Avast to protect your computer for free. There is also a good malware removal tool called Spybot that detects and prevents known spyware from infecting your computer. It is also useful in removing spyware that is already on your computer.

Read the How to protect your computer from malware and hackers chapter of Security-in-a-Box for more information on how you can keep viruses, spyware and hackers at bay.

Keeping your software up to date

It is critical to always update your computer’s software regularly and ensure that you have the latest version available. Keeping your software up to date limits weaknesses in the software that can be exploited by malware. Always keep your operating system (Windows, Linux, Mac OS, etc) updated by downloading the latest updates from the respective websites. Application software (Word, Excel, LibreOffice), either bought or open source, should also be kept up to date. Set your software to send you alerts about security updates, if such an option is available, so that you can get them as soon as they are released.

Why do you need to update your software regularly?

Given the complexity of software development, a few errors and omissions are still left when software is released. These are called bugs. These bugs can cause vulnerabilities which can be exploited by malware. Luckily, software developers are always looking for these errors and constantly release updates to fix them.

How do you update your software?

Most software on Windows will either update automatically or alert you to available updates, and point you to where you can download them. Windows operating system is set to auto-update by default.

If your settings are not set to auto-update (mobile-based GSM data providers often advise you to turn off automatic Windows updates to conserve your data bundles) you can turn this function on by going to your computer’s Start menu, selecting All Programs and clicking Windows Update.

Alternatively, through the process above you can set Windows Update to inform you of available updates and let you decide whether to download them or not. This way, you can download and install all your updates when you are in a place with a good and affordable internet connection (e.g. your office)

Open Source software

For most small organisations in Africa, keeping your paid-for software up to date can be a challenge. Sometimes you have to buy new licences, or whole new software suites, which can be a drain on your budget.

Consider switching to free and open source software (FOSS) such as the office suite LibreOffice, and an open source operating system such as GNU/Linux-based Ubuntu.

Also consider using Mozilla Thunderbird as your email client and Firefox as your internet browser. As well as being free, FOSS software is also relatively more secure, as there are millions of volunteers looking at the source code and any one of them can spot bugs and fix them much quicker than engineers of proprietary software can. Independent developers are also constantly developing digital security tools to add to FOSS software.

Here are a few FOSS alternatives to your proprietary software:

LibreOffice: a software suit that does most of what you need from Microsoft Offce.

Mozilla Thunderbird: an email client alternative to Microsoft Outlook but more secure especially if used with Enigmail and GPG.

Mozilla Firefox: an internet browser alternative to Internet Explorer. Firefox is always being updated to keep it more secure and reliable. It can also be expanded by adding security features.

Read the Keeping your software up to date section in Security-in-a-Box for more information on how to keep your software up to date.

Keeping Backups of your information

Loss of digital information from computer theft or collapse is fairly common in many countries in Africa. In some countries, confiscation and destruction of computers by government security agents is also something that you should be wary of.

Fortunately, you can take measures to ensure that you recover your most important information in the unfortunate event that you should lose a computer either through theft, system collapse, or confiscation/destruction by your adversaries.

Your best bet is to keep a backup of your important information. When creating a backup:

  • Identify your important information and organize it in one place, such as a folder in your computer.
  • Select a backup storage medium that allows you to replace your backup document with its latest version. An external hard disk drive (HDD), which connects to your computer via USB, has become the storage medium of choice for many. External HDDs can offer storage space of up to 6TB. It is, however, recommended that you store your backups on smaller HDDs, from 350MB to 1TB, which you can keep in separate locations.
  • Keep your backups in a separate location from your computer. This ensures that you do not lose both the files on your computer and your backup at the same time. Keeping a couple of backups in different locations is good practice, as long as these too are secured.
  • You can also store your backups on remote servers via the internet – on what is now known as the cloud. Ensure you choose a secure online storage service. Consider secure services like Tresorit and SpiderOak, which are both quite secure and reliable.

Read the chapter on How to recover from information loss in Security in-a-box for a more detailed explanation on how to back up and recover your information.