Tips to beef up your computer’s security (and avoid ransomware)

A ransomware attack late last week affected various computers around the world; the hardest hit nation was the United Kingdom. There, hospitals had to turn away patients (unless it was an emergency), as their systems were locked out. Wired reports that a lot of the UK’s National Health Service’s computers either run Windows XP (which Microsoft no longer supports) or are unpatched. A recent patch protects against this particular ransomware, but initially went out only for newer versions of Windows; Microsoft’s since released it for XP.

I’ve written previously about how to improve your online security and privacy. While there’s some overlap, your computer’s security also matters. Below are some tips on how to improve such.

If you’re on Windows XP, upgrade to a newer operating system

Mac vs Linux vs Windows
Flickr photo by Javier Aroche (CC BY)

Some people still use Windows XP, either out of indifference, compatibility reasons (obscure software requirements), or fiscal reasons (they can’t or won’t pay for a newer computer/operating system). That said, computers aren’t like TV sets; they’re more like cars, and require regular maintenance.

Windows XP’s security flaws are heavily documented by this point. Barring some extremely specific software requirement (and even that’s debatable), there’s zero reason to stay on XP at this point. As recent events show, it’s a major security risk; it’s also one that’s not worth whatever amount of money’s perceived as being “saved” in the short term.

Below are options for a new desktop operating system. All of them are much more secure than Windows XP:

  • Windows 10. The default on new PCs.
  • Mac OS. The operating system of Apple’s Macs. They’re more expensive than PCs, however.
  • Chrome OS. The operating system on Chromebooks. If you don’t have high-end computer needs (i.e., just browsing Facebook/sending email/playing Spotify), Chromebooks are worth considering. I’ve previously written about Chromebooks, including a setup guide.
  • Linux. While there’s advantages of Linux (such as its cost), I’d only recommend this for those who know someone technically inclined as support. Out of the Linux versions, I’d suggest Linux Mint (Cinnamon, MATE, or Xfce versions) or Ubuntu (regular Ubuntu, Xubuntu, or Ubuntu MATE versions).

Install updates and patches for your computer

It’s important to install software and operating system updates, as the recent ransomware attack shows. Most operating systems and some software will prompt users when an update’s needed.

Basic security education

Staying educated about basic computer usage and security’s important. The usual advice applies: don’t click on unfamiliar or suspicious looking links (especially in emails), don’t open unfamiliar email attachments, use and keep updated antivirus software (especially if using a Windows), etc.

Backup your files

Keeping backups is my final suggestion. Backups will be useful in case of whatever disaster affects your computer, and not just ransomware attacks. If the worst happens, you’ll still have a copy of your data available, and without paying someone holding it hostage.

I’ve recently written about my own backup strategy.

Conclusion

Ultimately, it’s up to computer users to help improve security. There’s nothing to be gained by ignoring or pretending computer security isn’t important. Any perceived cost savings pale compared to a ransomware ransom, or losing valuable data. If money’s that much of an issue, there’s always lower-cost solutions like Linux and open source/web-based software.

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