Digital attack alert!

Digital attack alert!

At various times during the past year or two, Eric Thorn has been asked about the growing threats to personal computers arising from all manner of sources. In some previous, now archived, editions of MEN, Eric has discussed the importance of anti-virus software and its applications.

But the threats are growing, and with all manner of Smartware now available, it is not only the majority of both laptop and personal computers that are being targeted by hackers. Despite Eric’s recommendations, as always, you are advised to check things out with your ICT advisor to ensure that your personal hardware and its tailor made settings are suitable for any intended adaptation or software installation.

Thanks, I believe, to the general media, I have been receiving a growing number of enquiries from people who are genuinely worried about the digital security of hardware connected to the Internet.

Without doubt, every time the news bulletins have revealed an unfortunate hacking of VIS (Very Important Systems) such as, for example, the NHS (National Health Service) computer installations, I have been contacted. Friends who know me well, MEN (Maintenance and Equipment News) readers who have emailed me in the past, and even a handful of contacts from my past whom I had almost forgotten about!

One of the latter was a past colleague who still had my telephone number and thought it was worth a try. The common thread of every one of these enquiries was along the lines of whether they ran the risk of outside influences on their respective equipment, and/or what could they do to prevent, or at least help to prevent, uninvited control of their personal or business computers.

Two people, both representing different churches, referred to my feature on Smart systems, Smart churches and other buildings, and so on (MEN, Autumn 2017, read it on line at http://www.cwponline.co.uk/the-future-is-smart/). Both were querying whether or not hardware and other equipment could suffer from hacking or other unwanted interference in a similar way to personal computers.

The one word answer is “Yes”. Any gadget that is Smart, i.e., has Internet connection capabilities, may be considered as a possible target. Increasingly, all manner of facilities from light switches to washing machines, from heating thermostats to microwave ovens, from intruder alarms to closed circuit television cameras have Smart arrangements, often controlled by apps (applications) on cell phones, mobile phones and tablets.

Smart goods that are not computers, mobile cell phones or tablets are generally categorised as Things. Thus, connecting Things to the Internet has become known in industrial circles, now filtering into domestic environments, as the IOT (Internet of Things).

It is good to know that most of now understand the importance of having anti-virus software installed on our computers. Increasingly, realisation is dawning that anti-virus software should also be considered an essential requirement on mobile cell phones and tablets. This applies irrespective of what operating system you may have: Windows, Mac, Linus, Android, or other.

Long-standing readers with exceedingly good memories, and those who file their copies of MEN for reference purposes, may remember that once upon a time I suggested that it is not really necessary to purchase anti-virus software because there are various free programs available.

Originally, I recommended AVG (Anti-Virus Grisoft) but a few years ago I changed my mind and recommended Avast which I still continue to use. Interestingly enough, in 2016, Avast bought their rival. At the time of writing, AVG and Avast are continuing as separate programs: the benefits of both are rather similar.

In addition to guarding against possible virus infiltrations, the free Avast (and AVG) also guards against PUPs (Potentially Unwanted Programs) from being downloaded without being called for.

Enhanced versions of Avast and AVG are available in return for a subscription. Comparisons of what may be enjoyed free of charge and what is available for a fee may be viewed at www.avast.com (Avast) and www.avg.com (AVG). Downloads of the software are also available from these web sites, not only for Windows and Mac personal computers, but also for mobile cell phones and tablets. Just select the items you wish to try. Remember, after trying any of these programs, you can always uninstall if any do not appeal to you.

Just a reminder that if you do download any anti-virus software, and you already have a program installed on your machine, the present one should be disabled until you have made up your mind which you prefer to keep. It is never a good idea to have more than one anti-virus software program running on any machine as these programs can conflict with each other.

Microsoft® takes security really seriously. Windows 10 users therefore have a program called Windows® Defender built in to the operation system. This also watches for viruses and potentially unwanted programs. However, speaking for myself, I prefer to use the Avast software as it includes a number of bonuses that I believe would be hard to come by on other free software except, of course, AVG (as it is now owned by Avast).

For those using Windows 8®, Windows® Defender may still be downloadable from http://www.microsoft.com/downloads.

Increasing threats

Recent times have witnessed various threats to computers in particular, but also to other Smart Things.

However good an anti-virus program is, it is just that: an anti-virus tool. Many of the increasing threats that are becoming prevalent are not actual viruses.

Any possible threat to any personal computer or other Smart Thing is a cause for concern. Perhaps one of the most worrying of recent times is the threat of Ransomware. This is where a hacker somehow manages to take control of a computer and lock the programs thereon.

When the genuine operator next boots up, they are greeted with a message informing them that they must pay to have their programs unlocked. One of the Avast bonuses is their Ransomware Shield, designed to help keep such infiltrations at bay. An extra layer of Ransomware security is included in the paid for version.

Another threat that seems to be increasing in popularity of late is that of computer pirates developing fake web sites that look just like the real thing. Avast subscription version comes to the aid of the genuine computer user by providing an item named Real Site. This tool helps the user to avoid fake web sites.

Something which I understand many personal computer users overlook is the necessity of keeping updated the individual programs that they have installed on their magic digital boxes. A good many updates on general software programs are called for because of enhanced security matters to ensure that hackers and viruses cannot get in via the back door of software that is out of date.

Most programs require updates from time to time but some have to be updated manually, which is why such updating tends to be overlooked. Avast incorporates a rather good Software Updater that monitors relevant software and advises the user when an update is available. In the optional premier paid for version of Avast such miscellaneous software can be set to update automatically.

Although I believe the free to download version of Avast is ideal for most private users, for those who want a deeper peace of mind I recommend the Avast Internet Security program, from which some of the examples in this article are taken. Check the web site www.avast.com for details. Subscriptions are annual but the more years paid for at any one time the cheaper it becomes.

Back up

Sadly, nobody can possibly ever be immune from the possibility of their personal computer or other equipment catching a virus or being hacked in some way.

It can never be over-stressed that all pc and Mac users should regularly ensure that they back up their work. Copy all files on to an external hard drive. Use a high capacity USB (Universal Serial Bus) handy flash drive to back up current work in progress until time is available to transfer the same on to the back up external drive. For, surely, this simple procedure is far better to adopt as a good regular habit than to suddenly discover a problem, however small or great, with your computer.

Those who need to invest in either an original or replacement external hard drive should be aware of the latest technology for these peripherals. Traditional disc drives are the cheapest. These drives operate with an enclosed high speed motor.

The latest generation, however, are known as solid state drives. They operate in a similar fashion to USB handy flash drives. Compared to the traditional disc drives, solid state drives are much faster in locating documents. It is anticipated that solid state drives will also prove more reliable in the long term.

USB handy flash drives are currently enjoying their third incarnation. So, watch out for those described as USB3. When plugged into a USB3 computer socket, this welcome generation of USB3 drives both read and write data far quicker than the previous USB2 and, of course, the original USB1.

Internet of Things

With the advent of Smart buildings, the Internet of Things is already a reality that no longer sits on the horizon of the imagination. Anything that can be connected to the Internet effectively has the potential to be controlled remotely not only by the owner using a mobile phone app, but by some anonymous invisible guest.

A recent report estimated that within the next few years the number of Things connected to the Internet will almost certainly increase by a greater percentage than we might be able to anticipate just now. And already devices that fall into the category of Things are being hacked. Avast claim that they are already keeping a watchful eye on the Internet of Things.

They report that they are working on a new layer of cyber security which, at present, is particularly focussing on protecting personal networks. They are attempting to build cloud based IOT protection solutions with the assistance of AI (Artificial Intelligence) data behaviour analysis. Their aim is to create a highly advanced digital system to detect botnet attacks even before they occur. (The word botnet is a combination of the words robot and network. The term is usually used with a negative or malicious connotation).

Success with this on-going project would put the Avast botnet protection in line with their highly acclaimed anti-virus technology which already operates so quickly that it prevents unwanted guests from entering a computer, but alerts users to such actions via a pop-up message.

For clarification, Wikipedia describes a botnet as a number of Internet connected devices, each of which is running one or more bots. Botnets can be used to perform distributed denial of service attack, steal data, send spam, and allow an attacker to access the device and its connection. The owner can control the botnet using command and control software.

Post Script: Who are Avast!?

When I am singing the praises of Avast, as I have been known to, many of my friends have asked Who are or what is Avast?

The answer is that Avast is a multi-national cyber security software company based in Prague, Czech Republic. The last time I checked, Avast claims to have more than 400 million users and the largest market share among anti-malware application vendors worldwide.

The company has more than 1,600 employees across its headquarters, Europe, North America and Asia. It was founded in 1988 as a cooperative and has been a private company since 2010.

With the world’s largest threat detection network, Avast claims to protect digital life by stopping threats before they do harm. They do this by using artificial intelligence and machine learning from millions of global users.

Avast appears to be transforming security, by providing powerful solutions that protect users on any device. The company claims its priority is to ensure online safety and privacy. Whether using their own personal home Wi-Fi or using mobile devices anywhere in the world, Avast aims to protect every connection.

Eric A. Thorn
Email: EricAThorn@msn.com