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There are a lot of tasks that computer users should really -- in an ideal world -- be doing every single week. The pressures of life, however, inevitably keep us from doing them regularly enough. As a substitute, then, many people would be well-served to adopt a policy of doing some computer "housekeeping" once a week, and rotating through four essential tasks. That way, none of those tasks go more than a month without getting done. It's imperfect, but it's far better than the common alternative -- never doing any of them at all.

The first week of every month, one should run a complete backup of personal information on the computer's hard drive. This is usually best done straight to a portable hard drive, and run overnight when it won't affect any users. Once every few months, one should go a step farther and burn the really essential files (financial files, family photos, important e-mails) to a DVD, and send that DVD somewhere far away for safe keeping. This step is important because there's always the risk -- no matter how low, it's ever-present -- that one's home and entire community could be destroyed in a massive disaster, like the tornadoes that hit Joplin, Missouri, or Parkersburg, Iowa. Having a solid-state backup (like one burned to a DVD) of the really essential files somewhere far away guarantees that those most precious files won't be lost forever, even if everything else in the home is gone. An easy rule of thumb: Find a bank in a town at least 100 miles away from your home, but someplace you're likely to visit at least a couple of times a year, and rent a safe-deposit box there. Whenever you're in town, drop off your latest DVD in the box and walk away knowing that your most precious data is safe and sound behind lock and key.

The second week of every month, check for updates to the programs on your computer. This includes programs like the Internet browsers Firefox and Chrome, mail programs like Thunderbird, office suites like LibreOffice, and the add-on programs that make other programs work, like Adobe Flash Player. This task falls to the second week because it should always follow a data backup.

The third week of every month, install the latest Microsoft updates issued on Patch Tuesday (the second Tuesday of every month). This advice obviously doesn't pertain to Apple or Linux users, but they too should practice good housekeeping by looking for operating-system updates at least once a month. Microsoft, though, sets the Patch Tuesday schedule, so this task has a natural place in the normal monthly rhythm of good housekeeping on your computer.

The fourth week of every month, run a full (or "comprehensive") antivirus scan of your computer. Like a backup of the hard drive, this should be run overnight, when it won't interfere with any computer use. A thorough antivirus scan should also include a scan for spyware and other malware, and it could easily occupy 50% or more of the computer's processing power, so it can be a massive nuisance to run while the computer is in use. An overnight scan is just as effective and won't bother anyone in the process.

These recommendations, of course, depend on the precise circumstances of the individual computer user. But as general guidelines, they're good for ensuring that the truly essential steps for computer security get taken on a routine basis. Ideally, one would actually conduct a full backup, a round of program updates, and an antivirus scan every single week...but it's a sad fact of life that nobody but a small handful of hard-core enthusiasts does this. Committing to following at least a monthly cycle for these steps, though, will at least bring one's computer use to an acceptable level of safety and security.
One of the problems with the speedy emergence and massive popularity of Facebook and other social-networking websites, like Twitter and LinkedIn, is that we haven't really grown into a realistic cultural knowledge of how to use them. With other technologies, even when rapidly deployed, society had a sort of grace period to figure them out -- automobiles took a place that had logically been occupied before by horses and carriages, and there were more than two decades between Carl Benz's 1886 patent on the gas-driven automobile and Henry Ford's 1908 introduction of the Model T, during which the new technology of the automobile could start to settle into a place in the popular mindset.

With the Internet generally, and in particular with sites that enhance the individual's ability to share instantaneously with a global audience, we haven't had the same kind of break-in period. All of the mistakes we make now are not only potentially public for all the world to see (as the Star Wars Kid learned) -- they're also really durable, as well. Once something finds its way onto the Internet, it can quite possibly reside there forever.

Thus when we equip ourselves with tools like Facebook, we're potentially a lot like toddlers in an armory full of loaded weapons. We don't really know the full extent of what we're doing, and the consequences can be permanent. This potentially dangerous situation is made even more hazardous by the fact that social-networking sites are designed to encourage the user to over-share. This is very much by design. The act of adding another person to one's social network on Facebook is called "friending". Whether or not we should even do something like that to the English language, the fact remains: One is programmed to believe that Facebook information is just shared with a bunch of "friends". This psychological programming just enhances some participants' willingness to throw caution to the wind and share too much. But no matter how the language of a social-networking site is framed, it is nearly impossible to ensure that the information one shares there will only go to true friends, and that it won't be deliberately misused by others. Thus, some precautions are in order.

There are many things that should never be shared online, and particularly not in a semi-public space like Facebook. Here are four particular examples:

#1: Never share your full birthdate or place of birth in a social-networking profile. There's a lot of pressure to do this. Facebook recently changed its profile layout, and it leaves a gaping hole for the user to see if he or she hasn't entered a hometown. And there's no doubt that one of the most popular uses of Facebook is to leave a birthday greeting for friends (and, most people should be ready to admit, mere acquaintances). But the problem is that those two facts, long assumed to be the kinds of things that only close friends and family might know, have also long been used by companies and organizations to help positively establish a person's identity. There are innumerable websites, for instance, that still ask "What is your hometown?" or "What was your place of birth?" as a security question. And while it's patently irresponsible for those sites to continue using those as security questions (since it really is absurdly easy to figure out anyone's place of birth), until they stop, it's unwise for anyone to share that information willingly on the Internet. And if there's any factoid used more often than the place of birth to establish a person's identity, it's the date of birth. In some cases, a name and date of birth are all that a person might need to offer to get access to medical records at a doctor's office -- especially by phone. Hometowns should always be omitted from social-networking profiles, and if one can't resist the urge to share his or her birthday, then one should at least leave off the year of birth. Again, it might not be very difficult for a crook to deduce, but there's no reason to make the job easier.

#2: A social-networking profile should not include photos or names of minor children. This prohibition probably sounds needlessly harsh, but it's actually surprisingly vital. First, bridging the notes in rule #1 about security questions, a question that remains much too widely-used in the security field is "What is your mother's maiden name?" Again, that may have been a suitable security question 20 years ago, but it's absolutely not today, when Facebook profiles, e-mail addresses, and old accounts of a million kinds routinely contain a woman's married and unmarried last names. A woman's "maiden name" is no longer any more challenging to figure out than her eye color. And if she leaves a digital footprint behind with her children's names, then she totally renders useless any online security checkpoint that asks the question. The question itself should be thrown out because it's totally obsolete today, but until that happens, there's no need to make crime easier for identity thieves and other crooks.

But there's also a more immediate risk for children, and it is that they become too easy to identify when their parents advertise them on the Internet (which is exactly what happens on a Facebook page, unintentionally or not). There is no reason to make the task easier for potential abductors by sharing names, routines, schedules, and photographs of a whole set of family members via Facebook. One might think, "Well, I only have 100 friends on Facebook, and I'm not worried about any of them." But how certain can a person be that each of those 100 friends are sufficiently security-conscious that they'll never have their accounts hacked?

And then, of course, there's also the concern that a parent should have about his or her child's reputation and good name. As of the latest count, a video entitled "David After the Dentist" had been viewed more than 82 million times on YouTube. It's funny, to be sure. But it's also going to be something for which that child will be known most likely for the rest of his life. Celebrity may be fleeting, but once it's been digitized and placed on the Internet, it's pretty durable as well. Leave the choice in the child's hands whether to put up pictures or videos of him- or herself once they reach adulthood. It's shocking, really, that virtually everyone can agree that youthful fame probably did permanent damage to Michael Jackson, but so many of those same people have no second thoughts about exposing their own children to Internet fame.

#3: No profile should detail a favorite book or movie or song. There are a few errors made here: Either one makes the mistake of sharing just a single favorite of each (which is, following the basic details of a person's birthdate and birthplace, yet another favorite "security" question), or one shares far too many of these items. If there's one thing to be learned from Netflix and its movie-recommendation algorithm, it's that a whole lot of predictive power is attached to whatever a person has strongly liked or disliked in the past. There's nothing particularly wrong with sharing five or ten favorite books or movies, but sharing dozens or scores of them gives away a lot more about one's psychological profile and other behaviors than are necessary to share. Sites like Facebook aren't being operated for the public interest; they're not charities. They make money, and they do that by selling detailed profiles of their users, whether that's as aggregated data, anonymous profile information, or otherwise. No matter how it's sliced up and sold, the data itself has enormous value, and simply giving it away for free -- especially in massive volume -- is a lot like going to work and declining to take a paycheck.

#4: One's immediate location does not need to be shared, ever. Shy of those rare instances (like the moment a commuter snapped a photo of the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River) when something truly remarkable has taken place, it's a bad idea to publicly share one's location -- or one's plans to be somewhere at a particular time. Giving away the details on an upcoming two-week vacation is the equivalent of putting a sign in the front lawn saying "We're not home". Posting a snapshot to Twitter of crazy times at a bar might just be telling an unstable ex or a faceless stalker where they can find inebriated prey. Even sharing too many photos of the commute to and from work might be an act that betrays when one's latchkey kids might be home alone.

It's altogether too easy to forget that what we place on the Internet appears on a global stage -- a stage that's not full of just bubblegum and teddy bears. It's a world in which today's supercomputers will very shortly become cheap, affordable tools that could be used by anyone -- with any kind of intent, whether innocent or malicious -- to scrape together the many little breadcrumbs we leave behind on the Internet to build a profile of any one of us that would have made J. Edgar Hoover envious. It is essential that nobody be lulled into a false sense of security about what they share on the Internet. As it's been said about crime, "The crooks only have to get lucky once. The cops have to get lucky every time." As Internet users, we are collectively in the same position as the police -- hoping, almost as much as deliberately trying, to keep our privacy, dignity, and security intact in the face of a world that may have a lot of reason to try to take those things away.
Three things you should know before using an online message board:

1. Use your own name, or use a pseudonym, but always behave as though everyone knows your real name. Sure, you may think you're safe behind a made-up name like MisterPlow or JessesGirl1998, but if people want to figure out who you are, it's not difficult. The people who control the website have access to server logs that give away quite a lot about who you are, including what websites you visited just before arriving at theirs. And if you think other people can't deduce who you are by your writing style or by the things you say, then you aren't aware of the power of just a little bit of research. Services like are built upon the premise that the patterns in written language can be recognized by a computer. If someone has enough reason to try to figure out who you are, they can.

2. If you think something you've written is smart or worth saving, copy and save it for yourself.  You never know when the message board you're using will have a database failure, change ownership, or otherwise fall apart. People can literally be hit by cars or have freak accidents, and if those people are managing your message board, then it could easily disappear overnight.

3. Don't feed trolls. (See our recent encounter with a YouTube commenter who's clearly just a plant for the Chinese government.) "Trolls" are people who search for hot-button issues to turn from mountains into molehills, usually for personal benefit or political gain. There's no use fighting with a troll on the Internet; just learn when to walk away.

4. Use language that you won't be ashamed for your grandma, your daughter, or an HR representative to read. First of all, you're putting it on the Internet anyway, and if it's language that you'd be embarrassed to encounter in day-to-day life, then you shouldn't be polluting the Internet with it yourself. But more directly to your own well-being, it's important to note that you are never as anonymous on the Internet as you think you are, and if someone cracks your identity (see rule #1 above), then you could find yourself making some sorry excuses to friends, family, and employers for things you said long ago.
If you have kids (or grandkids), you're probably quite proud of them. That's great; it means you're a caring parent. But please do not use your child's picture as your Facebook profile photo -- or your profile picture anywhere else on the Internet, either. Here are several reasons why:

  • Safety. Don't make it easier for predators to identify your kids by putting their pictures on the Internet. It's ridiculously easy to figure out who's related to whom just by using a few simple Internet searches. Once someone knows your name, and knows that you have kids, it takes no more than a couple of steps for them to figure out your kids' names. And if a predator knows your name, your kid's name, and what your kid looks like, then it's remarkably easy for that predator to target your child at school, at soccer practice, or on the playground -- and then use their knowledge of your family to concoct a potentially convincing story: "Hey, [child's name], my name's [fake name], and I'm a friend of your mommy and daddy. [Your name] had some car trouble, and they told me to take you home." If the predator has followed your Twitter posts, he might be able to add convincing details about something you did last weekend. If he's been following your LinkedIn profile, he could add lots of information about where you work and false details about how long you've been "working" together. Most children aren't wired to be skeptical enough for the information that's readily available today.
Frankly, that reason alone should be enough to stop you in your tracks. Remember: Your Facebook profile photo is as public as public can be -- it shows up in any Google or Bing search of your name, and the searcher doesn't have to do anything to prove they know you. But if the serious safety risk isn't enough, there are two other very good reasons not to use your child's photo as your profile picture:

  • Confusion. If someone is looking for your profile online, they want to confirm that it's you that they've found. Casual acquaintances, old friends from school, and other people who are looking for you (which is what a profile picture is for) probably don't know what your kids look like. They might be able to locate a resemblance of some sort, but don't make their lives more difficult. Just put up a picture of yourself.
  • Identity in the Internet age. The Internet has delivered the age of permanent memory. And as tools like Google Image Search improve, words (like your name) and pictures are being linked permanently in the "memory" of the Internet. Linking your child's photo to your name means that, should something happen to you (good or bad), it can become associated with your child's identity. If, for instance, you were to be accused of a crime, or involved in an accident, newspapers and television stations are going to search online for a picture of you, because that's what their readers and viewers want to see. If you've caused your name to be linked to your child's picture, they're going to get false results -- but how would they know? Mixing the wrong name with the child's picture can cause confusion and possibly even damage the child's reputation. It's going to be hard enough in the future for people born in the Google age to keep their reputations intact, with tools like cell-phone cameras available to document every childhood indiscretion. Don't make it harder for kids to protect their reputations by intermixing their identities with your own -- who knows what indiscretions of our own from the pre-Internet era are going to find their way online, on top of the ones we add today?
It's a simple request: Don't put your child's picture up under your name. It's a free and easy practice, and it's more important than you as a proud parent might intuitively think.

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This page is a archive of recent entries in the safety category.

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