Olderhood – Can You Trust Your Computer? Part One by John Skinner

Connected world

By John Skinner

“Once again the Bermuda Police Service(is) renewing its appeal to the public to remain vigilant regarding phone calls, e-mails and other correspondence from unknown persons that attempt to obtain personal information or other sensitive data.”. This is a direct quote from the website of the Bermuda Police Service (my local Police) only last week. If you check your own Police Force website you will probably find something similar.

It seems that such announcements are becoming standard weekly fare for Police Forces and news outlets. And it is not only members of the general public who succumb to these criminals. Earlier this month the UK media reported that a UK company had been scammed to the tune of about £1 million (About US$1.55 million) by a smooth talker on the telephone.

I hear you say “So what can we do to protect ourselves and our computers from these sorts of criminal attacks. I only use Facebook and Skype and emails to send messages to friends.”

In this first part of a two part article we will discuss what our computer consists of and the basic concepts of protecting your computer and you from cyber crime. The second part will discuss this in more detail.

Every computer consists of two main parts. The ‘Hardware’ – That is basically any solid object that is part of your computer that you can see and touch – the box with all those strange bits in it, the screen or monitor, the printer etc. Then there is the ‘Software’. This you cannot see. It is basically the computer programs that make your computer work. You may also have heard of Operating Systems, Drivers and Programs.

The Operating System makes the computer work; the Drivers help the Operating System make the other bits (screen, printer etc) work and the Programs use the Operating System and the Drivers to tell the computer to do what you want it to do. Well that is the over simplified theory of what should happen.

I, like most computer users, have a computer which uses a Microsoft Operating System. There are others mainly Mac (Apple) based or Linux and they all, from our perspective, work in a similar fashion.

Don’t be afraid of all these terms and items. And don’t be afraid to ask friends questions. I have been ‘playing’ with Microsoft for over 25 years, and regularly get taught something new about it by someone a generation or even two generations younger than me. I even have to ask my 9 year old granddaughter how to use an iPad!!

Computing is a bit like wine tasting. If you know a few basics and a few words, you can sound like an expert!

So back to what is our main theme, what is cybercrime and how do we protect ourselves against cyber crime?

Cybercrime can be said to be where a criminal attacks your computer, usually by infecting it with a small program so that the criminal can take control of the computer to unlawfully extract your personal and private information or to control the computer to do some other criminal act on his behalf.

There are several things we can do to protect ourselves and try and minimize our vulnerability to these cyber criminals. The first is to see that your computer is properly protected. When was the last time you received updates from the provider of your operating system? More importantly when was the last time that you installed them?

Some operating system updates are improvements to the system to make it work better. The majority though are classified as ‘Security Updates’. Why?

The Operating System consists of many hundreds of thousands of lines of code. On a regular basis criminals (and sometimes computer security experts) find parts of the code that can be exploited by criminals. It may be that a short cut created by the programmer during development was forgotten about before the production version was released or more usually there is an unexpected result from a coding error which allows a criminal to exploit the computers where the operating system is installed.   On occasion this can also happen with drivers and regular programs.

So downloading and installing regular updates from the manufacturer of your operating system and software is important. This can usually be set up to work automatically and is recommended for most users.

When a friend asks me to help them solve a problem with their computer I remind them that I will have full access to their computer. That access will give me much the same information they are likely to share with their priest, their doctor, their banker and in pillow talk with their significant other. They know they can trust me to keep their secrets.

Can you trust your computer to keep yours?

In Part Two we will discuss Security programs and other features on your computer to help keep you safe.

About the author: John Skinner is a retired Police Inspector with forty years Police service in England and Bermuda. He served five years with the Information Technology Unit of the Bermuda Police from the unit’s inception. For the last eight years of his Bermuda Police service he was responsible for the planning, and assisted in the implementation of, national internal security and natural disaster response. John Skinner holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Management and Technology. In 2003 he was elected a Fellow of the Emergency Planning Society of the United Kingdom.

By John Skinner

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