Securing Your PC 2020

The need for securing your PC has never been greater, and if you’re a Mac-head (no disrespect intended), this means you, as well. No, you are not immune.

Modern attacks generally fall into three categories: Harm your computer, harm other computers and networks, and steal your information. The “harm your computer” type have largely fallen out of disfavor due to both Apple’s and Microsoft’s policies providing good protection against such threats out of the box. The “harm other computers” type, however, is rampant, with literally millions of viruses embedded in machines all over the Internet. You’ll never know these sophisticated little programs have infected your computer, but they check their command and control sources for instructions periodically, and when they’re activated, they bring down major portions of the Internet. This brings us to the programs which fish for your information, the worst of which are electronic keyloggers designed to steal your passwords and drain your financial accounts, not to mention other information bad guys can use to commit identity theft from which it can take you years to recover.

Yes, Macheads, too. If they weren’t being hacked, you wouldn’t have smart guys writing articles entitled, “10 Ways To Prevent Your Mac From Being Hacked.” No, I do not recommend you follow that guy’s recommendations. They may work, they may not, and they may just screw up your system while leaving it as vulnerable as ever. Get an anti-virus. Better yet, get a security suite. Whatever you do, don’t plod along like some superior dinosaur thinking you’re immune to T-Rex, because for Macs, that is absolutely not true.

SOFTWARE FOR SECURING YOUR PC’S OPERATING SYSTEM

AntiVirus Software

Let’s begin with the very FIRST thing you should do with your PC before you even turn it on: Decide on which antivirus software you’re going to use.

Yes, Microsoft Defender (formerly Windows Defender) still exists, is on by default, and it’s good enough to keep your PC from being immediately hacked the moment you plug it in to the Internet. Furthermore, it consistently scores well in tests against various forms of malware and “real-world protection tests” performed by leading antivirus and malware reviewers.

Norton AntiVirus, however, has long been “the gold standard,” so let’s see what else is out there.

On August 26, 2020, PC Magazine ranked Norton AntiVirus Plus with a score of 4.0. While four products received PC Magazine’s coveted Editor’s Choice award due to their combination of features, performance and price, Norton did not receive the award this year, nor did it receive the highest score.

The following competitors scored higher than Norton’s product, all earning a 4.5 and PC Magazine’s Editor’s Choice awards:

  • Kaspersky Anti-Virus
  • Bitdefender Antivirus Plus
  • Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus

The other Editor’s Choice award went to McAfee, which scored a 4.0, ostensibly because it held it’s own with respect to protection but beat them all on price:

You pay $59.99 per year for unlimited McAfee licenses. That’s rare. Most competing companies offer one-, three-, five-, or 10-license subscriptions. For example, nearly the same subscription price gets you 10 Sophos licenses, three Kaspersky Anti-Virus licenses, and just one Norton license. Roughly $40 per month gets you a one-device license for many antivirus products, among them Bitdefender, Webroot, and Trend Micro. Price-wise, McAfee has the competition beat.

https://www.pcmag.com/reviews/mcafee-antivirus-plus

Norton clearly considers themselves to be the Rolls Royce of antivirus and security protection, but these days, they’re clearly just another Chevy, Ford, or GMC. Yes, Norton is a good product, but it’s certainly not worth Rolls Royce prices for just one license. Furthermore, if you look at their top of the line security suite, Norton 360 with LifeLock Ultimate Plus, you’ll that it lists for $350 (discounted to $300). Fortunately, that one does come with a license for “unlimited PCs,” so if you have a large family with a lot of devices, and a fair amount of financial assets requiring protection, Norton may yet be the product for you. On the other hand, if you have five devices and average needs, you’re probably better off with one of PC Magazine’s Editor’s Choice award winners.

Five other products matched Norton’s product in features and performance, while two scored below it.

Security Suite Software

All major security suites include antivirus software, generally the same or better versions of their stand-alone antivirus packages. Most, however, include SO much more than antivirus, including anti-malware/adware/spyware/phishing, a personal/PC firewall, spam filter, local and/or online backup systems, privacy protection, password manager, VPN, ransomware protection, system tune-up, and parental controls, not to mention the ability to load light packages on your smart phones. To help you figure out which one might be right for you, look no further than PC Magazine’s 2020 Security Suite evaluation.

SOFTWARE FOR PROTECTING YOUR DATA

While Browsing

Mozilla Firefox: By far the most useful and free browser on the planet from a company that actually values your privacy.

Tor Browser: Based on the latest version of Firefox, but for when your business is just none of anyone else’s business, fully commensurate with everyone’s Constitutional Fourth Amendment protections “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Hint: For those of you who never commit any crimes, ALL searches are seizures are, by definition, unreasonable, although they may, on occasion, be the result of law enforcement error, ignorance, or worse, contemptuous flouting of the law.

VPN: Tor uses a bag full of tricks, but VPNs aren’t one of them. Just remember, while VPNs secure your data stream between your computer and the VPN network’s final VPN router, at some point it jumps off into the Internet unprotected, so it’s not in and of itself a total security solution. They’re good at hiding your data and destination from your own ISP and your location the end source while securing your data stream while it’s in the VPN pipeline, but not much else. Besides, VPNs can leak!

HTTPS Everywhere: The Electronic Frontier Foundation has long been in the business of securing the Internet. This software operates as a browser plugin and forces all websites which can use HTTPS to use it. In its currently TLS 3.1 version, HTTPS encrypts the content of your browser session from your computer all the way to the website servers. HTTPS is included in Tor, but plugins are available for Firefox, Chrome and Opera, along with various mobile solutions. HIGHLY recommended.

1.1.1.1: Using your ISP’s DNS servers can be slow, and it’s certainly not private. In fact, they’ll have a record of every website you visited. You can instead use CloudFlare’s DNS servers. Because they’re distributed throughout the cloud, they’re faster. Because of their “lookup and discard without record” polices, they’re more private. Surf here for instructions and examples. I’ve been using them now for more than a year and am highly pleased at the results.

While on Your PC – File and Folder (Recommended)

Unencrypted files on your PC are vulnerable to both malware that escapes the detection of your security suite as well as to theft. Some of the products below encrypt files and folders, but require you to decrypt them before using, thereby exposing your data. The only totally secure solution is to unplug from the Internet, Wi-Fi and even SneakerNet (thumb drives). The next best thing, however, is AxCrypt, which both encrypts and locks your files while allowing you the user to work on them but denying access to whatever else might be on your system

7-Zip: Whether you just need to secure a single file, a few files, or a few folders, 7-Zip can use AES-256 encryption to secure your data. The only problem is, you cannot work on your data while it’s encrypted. You must first unencrypt it, which leaves the files or folders on your hard drive in a vulnerable state. However, 7-Zip’s ease of use is perfect for encrypting sensitive files via AES-256 and a full-length random password before sending them through a secure e-mail system.

AxCrypt: This PC Mag 2020 Editor’s Choice Award-winning beauty provides no-brainer installation, and allows you to encrypt (lock) files, folders and sub-folders via a simple right-click and password. Once locked, they remain locked, even though you as a user can access them, work on them, and save them so long as you remain logged in to your device. You can unlock them if you wish, but it’s not necessary to unlock your folders and files to work on them. In this way, AxCrypt protects them against everything within the system including viruses, worms i.e. all malware, except the single user who entered the correct password. If you exit AxCrypt or log off, you’ll have to reenter your password to regain access to your files (and that’s as it should be!). The only drawback is that the free version is limited to AES-128, but hey, that hasn’t been cracked, either.

AESCrypt: This, too, is as simple as AxCrypt, but as with most, here, once the file is unlocked, it can be accessed by anything on your system.

Cryptainer/Cypherix: This program is a bit more complicated to use and is limited to 100 MB containters for the free version, although you can create multiple encrypted containers. Their pricing model is geared towards container sizes more suitable for 2010 than 2020. That said, 100 MB is enough for the vast majority of text-based documents, including financials, wills, etc. Unlike AxCrypt, however, the container must be decrypted before accessing the file, which again temporarily leaves your files in a vulnerable state.

VeraCrypt: This is the mother load of encryption software, capable of creating visible containers, hidden containers, using multiple combinations of unbreakable encryption, including customizable types of encryption.

My Recommendation: AxCrypt

While Sending and Receiving E-mail (Highly Recommended)

Cybernews covered this quite well on August 26, 2020, so I’m just going to post that link: Secure email providers to protect your privacy in 2020. I will add that I would not ever send sensitive information over the Internet, even via a secure e-mail, unless I’d thoroughly encrypted it with bullet-proof encryption and a sufficiently long password, first (see Secuity Caveats, below).

While on Your PC – Entire Drive (NOT Recommended!)

BitLocker: While this is the easiest approach, there have been some reported problems with it in the past. You must also have Windows 10 Pro to use it.

VeraCrypt: A more modern port of TrueCrypt’s whole-hard drive encryption, VeraCrypt can also encrypt entire partitions, including the one where Windows is installed. In this latter case, encryption and decryption is automatic, real-time (on-the-fly) and transparent to the user. There is a slight performance hit, roughly 5% to 15%, but unless you’re watching frame rates in your high-end game, it’s really not noticeable.

While Backing Up

EaseUS Todo Backup

Aomel

FBackup

ADDITIONAL SOFTWARE

Unless you’re brand new to computers, now’s the time to plan which additional software you would like to buy/download and install on your computer. Here are some of my favorite, go-to software products which absolutely cannot be beat. If you need the link, just Google the name:

Display Software

Display Fusion: If you have more than one monitor, you’ll want this absolutely outstanding and free software on your system. Sure, Windows 10 includes some basic controls, but by comparison, Display Fusion’s Rolls Royce ability to perform fine adjustments of your monitors’ configurations and settings, including position, rotation, refresh rate, resolution, zoom, timeouts, fading, snapping, wallpaper and more make Windows 10’s monitor configuration look like a crappy, one-wheel skateboard. The professional version adds a few additional features but no gain in performance. Check the features carefully before you cough up any additional money. Combined with a modern, high-quality USB 3.x or C docking station with additional monitor capability, and your three-monitor setup will absolutely shine. I don’t know if there’s a limit on the number of monitors this software can handle. One gentleman used it to manage 24 separate monitors powered by six high-end graphics cards each supporting four Full HD monitors in a high-end workstation.

ClickMonitorDDC: The one thing Display Fusion doesn’t do is make adjustments to the lumens i.e. brightness, contrast and color controls. ClickMonitorDDC, handles these tasks well. One caveat: You’ll need to install your monitor’s manufacturer driver in order to have access to the advanced functions, particularly the colors.

Office Software

Microsoft Office: This is the de facto standard office product used by students, professionals, and people of all makes, models, and walks of life around the world. NOT free, though.

Libre Office: As its name suggests, Libre is an excellent FREE open-source alternative to Microsoft Office and gives it some serious competition. I used a much older version exclusively for about three years between 2005 and 2008. It includes nearly all the same functionality as Microsoft Office Professional, including Writer (Word), Calc (Excel), Impress (PowerPoint), Base (Access), Draw (diagrams), and Math (formula editor). If you don’t think it’s worth it, think again. Entire countries like France, Spain, Italy, Taiwan and Brazil have adopted LibreOffice as their de facto standard for both government as well as personal use.

Various Other Software

Project Libre: Free competitor to Microsoft Project.

Notepad++: By far the most useful free text editor on the planet.

NAPS2: Stands for “Not Another PDF Scanner 2.” Before you toss that old scanner in perfect working order except for the fact it’s manufacturer refuses to update the software for Windows 10, download and install NAPS. I’ve used it with a 2019 scanner as well as with a 1997 scanner. Saves to PDF, multiple image formats, and even has an OCR function. Good stuff.

Irfanview: By far the most useful free image editor on the planet. Excellent for cropping, auto-adjusting colors, and saving images in various formats.

Paint.net: By far the most useful free intermediate image layering editor on the planet.

Gimp: A useful and free alternative to Adobe Photoshop.

7-zip: By far the most useful free file and folder compression and encryption utility on the planet.

VLC Media Player: By far the most useful free video player on the planet.

Audacity: By far the most useful free audio capture, editing and rendering software on the planet.

Free Video Editing Software: It’s not software. It’s a link to perhaps the best comprehensive review of many different free products I could find. Don’t let the word “free” stop you, as some of these are used in professional video productions ranging from commercials to full-length movies you may have seen in the theaters. I’ve tried half a dozen of them, but none of the ones I tried are as easy and straightforward as older products like those by Pinnacle and even Microsoft Movie Maker. If you have recommendations…

If you find trying to wade through 24 options as daunting as I do, here’s a quick cover of just 3 titles:

TURNING ON YOUR NEW COMPUTER

Yes, by all means, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Updated: October 19, 2020 — 12:28 pm