How to use a computer
This is a primer for anyone searching the web looking for tips on how to use a computer. The language is direct, and intended to be clear and unequivocal.
1. A computer is a dangerous power tool, treat it accordingly
As computers become ever more a part of everything we do, there is a tendency to think of them as a simple tool – like a toaster. Unfortunately, that has never been true, and with the near infinite interconnections that exist for computing devices today, it is less true now than it ever was. A computer is a power tool, and a dangerous one at that. Compare your computer not to a toaster, but to a chain saw, a tree shredder, or a car. Those are things that, when used properly and with training and safety precautions, can be marvelous things that can really help you get a job done. Use them recklessly, without putting in the effort to learn the proper methods, and without safety precautions and people will get hurt. If you take nothing else away from this article, take this away: if you can’t be bothered to learn how to use your computer (or smart phone, tablet, etc.) properly, get rid of it before you get hurt in some way. The importance of this cannot be overstressed.
2. Exercise common sense safety precautions
This article on the CBC prompted this post. The radio version of that article noted that the charity owner has, after the incident, decided to start doing backups and install anti-virus software… after 15 years of not doing so. While it may be true that the criminals who extorted the charity are scum, it’s also true that the charity was effectively running its computer without taking reasonable precautions – precautions which were well known 25 years ago, let alone 15 years ago, or even last year… precautions which would have wholly prevented the financial loss.
Here are what I consider the basic safety measures everyone should take. And I mean “everyone”. Whether you’re a full-bore nerd, or a grandma who sends email to her grand-children, you need to do this stuff:
- If your computer and operating system have available anti-malware protection, and you’re not using anti-malware, you’re just wrong. Period. Anti-virus is largely free at this point, although there are more advanced subscription solutions, but even the free versions would have prevented what happened to that charity.
- If you connect to the internet and don’t have your computer patched up to date, running fully supported software and devices, you’re just wrong. Period. I genuinely wish we lived in a world where this one wasn’t true, but it is. Yes, you may love Windows XP. Yes, that old scanner may have served you well thus far and still be working. Unfortunately, if you’re not patched up to date and in support, criminals on the internet will eventually exploit weaknesses in your system, and that includes old devices. In many ways, owning a computer is like owning a boat – you have to keep pouring money into it, because if you don’t it will sink eventually. If you love your old stuff and it’s serving specific purposes, don’t connect it to the internet. There is nothing wrong with a standalone machine doing its thing.
- If you don’t have a firewall between you and the internet, you’re just wrong; unless you’re a bona fide expert system administrator, and even then you’re probably wrong. When you got set up for internet by your provider, there was probably some stuff about firewalls. If you bought your own wifi router, there’s definitely firewall functionality in it. Learn how to use it and turn it on. As noted above, this computer stuff doesn’t make toast, it processes your very identity, your life. Treat it accordingly. I can’t stress this one enough. If you can’t get a firewall between you and the internet, hire someone who can. It is a fact that any computer exposed, without protection, to the internet will be probed in under 5 minutes, and hacked just as quickly if there are any vulnerabilities. If you haven’t been using a firewall, and don’t have anti-malware, then the computer you’re reading this on has probably been hacked already! Scumbags use compromised computers to launch Distributed Denial of Service attacks, serve illegal files, and much more.
- If you don’t back up your critical data and store it off-line, you’re just wrong. In fact, not only should it be off-line, but it would be even better stored off-site. Not only can hackers wreck your data, but computers are subject to the usual palette of potential accidents and disasters such as drink spills, fire, electrical damage, theft.
3. Other really good ideas to get the most out of your computer with the least pain
- Don’t open files that people send you unless the sender has contacted you in advance to let you know. That may sound phenomenally paranoid, but opening attachments is the #1 way that malware like the ransomware in the CBC article gets propagated. Yes, it may seem like you recognize the sender. Yes, it might even just be a joke. However, there is a very good chance than any unsolicited or unexpected attachment is some kind of attack on your system and if you click it, you had best hope that your efforts with the four safety precautions up above protect you. Some people don’t have a choice because of the work they do, but most people can afford to simply delete emails with unexpected attachments.
- Don’t click links in unsolicited emails. Much like the attachment thing above, very little that is good comes from links in unsolicited emails. If you aren’t expecting someone to send you a link, don’t click it.
- Do take a training course. If you aren’t a computer geek by education or vocation, hie thee to a night course and learn how to use the thing. You took training and practice learning to drive. You took training and practice to learn how to cook. You took training and practice to learn how to do just about everything you do, even if that training was “ask someone who is an expert to show me”. It is no different with your computer. Get assistance, don’t assume that you can Google the answer and understand it. And, once your expert assistant has explained it to you, follow the advice to the letter.
- Don’t second-guess the nerd who helped you. If your broken computer was fixed by Neighbour Bob, and Bob said “stop installing toolbars”, it wasn’t because his brain had a special on those words and he had to get them out. It’s because he was serious and trying to help you. If you can’t follow simple instructions, pack your computer in a box and sell it now. Sometimes, you’ll be told things you don’t like, such as “ease up on the porn sites” or “get rid of Windows XP” but rest assured, there is a good reason you’re being told this stuff.
- When you buy a computer, make sure it is fit to purpose. I almost put this in the common sense section, but I’ll put it here. Far too many people want a computer and go out to buy the cheapest one they can get. But as I said, computers are tools, and that means that different configurations are good for different things. Also, because they are an extensible tool (i.e. they can grow and your use for them can grow), the purchase of a computer actually requires a bit of pre-planning / forethought – much like buying a house. If you want to play games, you’re going to need a different computer than if you want to process photos, which is different than doing office work. People often skimp on memory, for example, because memory is expensive… and yet a system with insufficient memory is guaranteed to be slow and irritating. Again, this is a “get expert advice” situation, and be honest with your advisor. Also, be prepared to set a reasonable budget, and be prepared to set your sights a bit lower. Don’t forget, you’re probably going to have to pay for some software licences too. An all-singing, all-dancing, fast, sexy, multi-purpose gaming/photo/video/office computer is going to set you back some big coin, even today. Laptops are not the answer to all computing problems either, and a powerful laptop will cost about 50% – 100% more than a comparable desktop. Laptops also have other parameters like weight and battery life that you need to consider.
- LINUX is not for novices. Enough said. If you have to ask a nerd about anything with regard to your computer, and the answer involves LINUX, it’s wrong. Power nerds can run LINUX and do amazing things. Regular users cannot, so don’t even go there. This ties in with the “fit to purpose” note, above.
- When all else fails, buy a Mac. I’m not a huge Apple fan, but I will say this: if you don’t have the resources of friends and associates who have bona fide computer expertise, do yourself a favour and buy a Mac with AppleCare or whatever they call it now. You, and everyone around you, will be happier that you did. Just trust me on that.
So there you have it… personal computing in a nutshell, courtesy of Architeuthis Dux. I hope this reaches one person and improves things, so perhaps, as a security professional, I will have one less person to visit and sort out.