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Securing Your Holiday Tech Gifts

17 Dec 2012

December is upon us, and whether you have a Christmas tree, menorah, kinara, an unadorned aluminum pole, or simply good cheer for the holiday season and the coming New Year, you may be looking forward to receiving a high tech holiday gift. If that is the case, then you are in luck, for the good folk at ESET  have prepared a series of very special blog posts containing some expert advice and tips on how to secure your new devices. In the first of this series, which will be broken into two parts, we will be looking at securing a new Windows PC. We will be following up with blog posts on Android devices, such as smartphones and tablets, and Mac OS X as well.

Out of the box and through the woods…

The first thing you will want to do after unwrapping your holiday computer is plug it in. While that is probably not too surprising, since it is an electronic device and requires some source of electricity, it is still not quite ready for use, because plugging in a computer these days typically means providing both power and a network connection. A new computer out of the box, though, is an insecure computer, so we are going to go over the steps to make it a secure one.

Pro Tip #1: Save the packaging for your computer in case you need to exchange if it is defective or to return it for repairs.

The secrets of good password selection

Once your computer starts up, you will probably be prompted to accept some license agreements, enter your name, choose a password, and perhaps even connect to a network before seeing the main screen for the first time.

As always when setting up a new account anywhere, you should choose a strong password, that is, one which is resistant to being guessed. Including a combination of capital and lower case letters, numbers and symbols is a wise idea, and you should aim for a minimum of seven characters. Avoid passwords like the obvious “12345”, “password”, or anything using a variation of your name, birthday or other personal information.

LANding on the right network

If you are setting up your new computer at home, you may have the choice of connecting to both wired and wireless networks. Go for the wired connection. Aside from being faster, wired network connections are more difficult to “sniff” from afar (or monitor or eavesdrop on) than wireless ones.

And, of course, if you are connecting to a wireless network, make sure it is yours and not someone else’s. Using a wireless network that does not belong to you is never a good security practice. Aside from facing possible legal issues, that connection may be monitored by criminals – or might even have been set up by them – in order to commit identity theft or fraud.

While your new computer may now be connected to the Internet, it still is not quite ready to surf it just yet. There are still a few more steps to take:

Recovery Media: It’s Your Secret Insurance Policy

Chances are the new computer you purchased did not come with recovery media to restore the system in the event of a catastrophic problem, such as a failed software update, file system corruption or hard drive crash. While providing system recovery CDs (or DVDs) was relatively common during the Windows XP era, over the past few years computer manufacturers have largely switched to providing a dedicated recovery partition on a computer’s drive to enable you to restore the system to its original state. Of course, that does not help you if the drive itself fails.

Hard disk drives are mechanical devices, and the failure rate for any mechanical device is 100%…eventually. Even solid-state drives, which do not have any moving parts, are subject to eventual failure. For this reason, most computer manufacturers also include the option to create recovery media, using recordable DVDs or a USB flash drive, something that can be booted from to reload the operating system, even to a blank drive.

You will usually be prompted to create recovery media shortly after the computer starts up the first time. We strongly recommend taking the time to do that, rather than dismissing or ignoring the message. Typically, recovery media sets use two or three recordable DVDs or require an 8GB USB flash drive. However, it is possible that the process will require less or more recordable DVDs and a higher capacity USB flash drive, depending upon the operating system and bundled software originally installed on the computer.

If your computer runs Windows 7, it is more likely to have a utility from the computer manufacturer to make the recovery media using recordable DVDs or a USB flash drive. If your computer runs Windows 8, it is more likely to include a utility from Microsoft for making the recovery media, and the utility will probably want to create it on a USB flash drive.

If you are not sure how to create (or use) the recovery media for your new computer, contact the manufacturer’s technical support department (or possibly the supplier’s) and ask for instructions as soon as practical. It is far better to generate the recovery media and never have to use it, than to find out you need it and it is no longer available. Also, many manufacturers charge an additional fee for providing recovery media once the computer is out of its warranty period.

Pro Tip #2: After creating your recovery media, test it by having it erase the computer’s internal drive and restore it using the media. While this may take an hour or two, if the recovery media fails or does not work, the time to find out is before you need to rely on the media, then you can contact the suppplier in order to exchange the computer for a properly working system.

Click here for the next story in this series about securing your Windows PC from ESET.