In other words, are our computers going to be hacked, like 47 NHS Trusts?
Are we writers likely to lose everything we’ve written? As someone who is a bit of a nerd and finds computer security fascinating, but is only an IT tutor, not a proper IT security expert, I say – oh, so cautiously – no.
(If you know more than I do about what I’m writing below, please feel free to skip this post and pop in again for the next week.) Computers are built like a washing line.
The small bit of code that makes them go at all – the BIOS (basic input output system) – is the props. The operating system – Windows (in its various versions), or iOS (Applemacs, iPads and iPhones), Android (phones and tablets), Linux or whatever – is the structure everything else hangs is the line. The programs which you use on your computer (Microsoft Office (Word, PowerPoint, Excel etc)), Internet browsers (Internet Explorer, Chrome etc) and anti-virus applications are installed on to the operating system (OS); these are the clothes hung on your washing line.
The largest number of computers which have been hacked, in the NHS and elsewhere, use Microsoft Windows XP operating system, which Microsoft stopped supporting in April 2014. The reasons for retaining XP are that, often, an expensive and complex piece of equipment, like an MRI scanner, was designed for XP and so all the computers that work with it also have to use XP. However, we are not here to solve the problems of the NHS. Very few home computer users still use Windows XP.
The other computers that were affected ran on more up-to-date operating systems, but they were not kept properly up-to-date. Microsoft, Apple and other technology companies send users updates to their operating systems. These are usually security ‘patches’, which enable your computer to fight off the latest nasties (what computer professionals call malware, not viruses, which are just one sort of malware). We should install these updates as soon as we receive the message saying they are available, but when we are using an organisation’s network (when we’re at work), the IT department should do this for us. In 47 NHS trusts they didn’t. I don’t know why.
So, the issues in this instance are institutionalised, and home users, like writers, are low risk, but that doesn’t mean that we can sit back and be complacent, because other – different – cyber-attacks will be around the corner. However, computer security is actually just common-sense.
- Use a firewall to filter all incoming internet data. Windows Defender is installed on all Windows computers. Unless you’re using another firewall, check that it’s enabled. (Look up how to do this on Google).
- Run all available updates (see above) to enable your firewall to deal with the latest nasties.
- Install an anti-virus program (such as Norton, McAfee, Malware Bytes, Kaspersky, Avira) to mop up the nasties that the firewall misses.
- Don’t click on dodgy links on websites, like the ones saying you’ve won a million pounds. Don’t click on emails from people/organisations you don’t know. Also, beware of those from people you do know, when the emails look unusual in some way, when they don’t use the sort of language your friend normally uses, contains spelling spag, or the message says something like they’re stranded in Thailand and need money. Beware of emails supposedly from reputable organisations, especially if you see spag and the logo looks fuzzy.
- Never give out user ids and passwords in an email; legitimate organisations, like banks, will never ask for entire passwords, only a few characters. If you are unsure of an email, hover your mouse over the sender’s email address; often you will see that a credit card company (for instance) is masking a completely email address.
- When doing money transactions, or entering other confidential information, check for https:// and/or a padlock in the address bar.
This web address (for Halifax Bank) displays https and a padlock.
- Back up (copy) your writing, on any device other than your computer. Use a memory stick or a portable hard drive.
The price of keeping your computer safe is not expensive or complicated. We just need to be eternally vigilant.