Privacy in the USA. Some resources.

Privacy is changing for citizens of the world, ever faster with technology.

I live in the USA (but you knew that).

Here are some resources that I have found interesting.  They include Internet web sites, the Constitution of the United States, quotes, novels, TV documentaries, TV shows and popular music lyrics.  Some excerpts are at the end of the post.

Research continues so this is version 1.1.  Comment and share your favorites.

Internet web sites

The Constitution of the United States

Privacy and the expectation of have been interpreted in the constitution.  The Constitution of the United States is available at archives.gov

  • First Amendment.  (freedom of speech)
  • Fourth Amendment.  (reasonable search, warrants)
  • Fifth Amendment.  (self incrimination)
  • Fourteenth Amendment.  (states may not deprive citizens of property without due process)

quotes

You have zero privacy anyway.  Get over it.
- Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, January 1999 (source)

You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.
-  Rahm Emanuel, politician, November 2008 (source)

SEN. RON WYDEN: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
JAMES CLAPPER: No, sir.
- James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, March 12, 201, (lying under oath to congress)  (source)

books – fiction

Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell (1949)  This classic novel imagines a future of oppressive government surveillance.  It is available to read online.  A four minute YouTube video by Thugs Notes.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (2008)  This is a contemporary novel with teenagers resisting government surveillance and has some good technology descriptions.  It is available for free download.

TV documentaries

“United States of Secrets.”  May 2014.  PBS TV documentary explores how US government agencies and businesses are collecting data.  Frontline TV show in two parts available with additional materials here.

  • United States of Secrets part 1 120 minutes broadcast May 13, 2014
  • United States of Secrets part 2 60 minutes broadcast May 20, 2014

“Inside the Mind of Edward Snowden.” May 28, 2014.  NBC TV news anchor Brian Williams interviews Edward Snowden.  Approximately 40 minutes.  Available at nbcnews.com with some additional video

TV shows – fiction

Government surveillance themes are appearing in popular TV shows including The Good Wife and Person of Interest.

The Good Wife.  “The Bit Bucket” Season 5 Episode 2  10/6/2013.  “Neil Gross of internet giant Chum Hum, seeks Lockhart & Gardner’s help in fighting the NSA regarding its recently leaked PRISM surveillance program. The NSA, while actively eavesdropping on the firm’s phone calls, discovers a possible link to terrorism in a former client of theirs” (Wikipedia)

The Good Wife.  “All Tapped Out.”  Season 5 Episode 18.  4/20/2014. “When Florrick/Agos takes  on the case of an NSA whistleblower, they learn the agency has been monitoring both the firm and Alicia’s personal life.” (Microsoft Media Center)

Person of Interest.  “Deus Ex Machina (Finale)” Season 3 Episode 23. 5/13/2014.  “The team work to stop Samaritan from coming online and targeting them; the battle against Vigilance reaches a conclusion.” (Microsoft Media Center)

music

Government surveillance themes in popular music.

“Integral” by Pet Shop Boys. (2007) Video at YouTube.

“Integral” by Pet Shop Boys. (2007) JCRZ – QR Code Video Remix. Video at YouTube.

========================================

Constitution of the United States (excerpts)

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized

Amendment V
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

AMENDMENT XIV
(Excerpt Section 1 by markdigital.com)
Section 1.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

========================
Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell (1949) Excerpt by markdigital.com

“… in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance. The invention of print, however, made it easier to manipulate public opinion, and the film and the radio carried the process further. With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end. Every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communication closed. The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time.”  Part Two, Chapter 9.

====================================

Person of Interest.  “Deus Ex Machina (Finale)” Season 3 Episode 23. 5/13/2014.  Screen captures.

Person of Interest TV show screen capture.

Person of Interest TV show screen capture.

Person of Interest TV show screen capture.

Person of Interest TV show screen capture.

Person of Interest TV show screen capture.

Person of Interest TV show screen capture.

====================================
“Integral” by the Pet Shop Boys.  Lyrics from the Internet.

If you’ve done nothing wrong
You’ve got nothing to fear
If you’ve something to hide
You shouldn’t even be here
Long live us
The persuaded we
Integral
Collectively
To the whole project
It’s brand new
Conceived solely
To protect you
One world
One reason
Unchanging
One season
If you’ve done nothing wrong
You’ve got nothing to fear
If you’ve something to hide
You shouldn’t even be here
You’ve had your chance
Now we’ve got the mandate
If you’ve changed your mind
I’m afraid it’s too late
We’re concerned
You’re a threat
You’re not integral
To the project
Sterile
Immaculate
Rational
Perfect
Everyone has
Their own number
In the system that
We operate under
We’re moving to
A situation
Where your lives exist
As information
One world
One life
One chance
One reason
All under
One sky
Unchanging
One season
If you’ve done nothing wrong
You’ve got nothing to fear
If you’ve something to hide
You shouldn’t even be here
You’ve had your chance
Now we’ve got the mandate
If you’ve changed your mind
I’m afraid it’s too late
We’re concerned
You’re a threat
You’re not integral
To the project
One world
One life
One chance
One reason
All under
One sky
Unchanging
One season
If you’ve done nothing wrong
You’ve got nothing to fear
If you’ve something to hide
You shouldn’t even be here
You’ve had your chance
Now we’ve got the mandate
If you’ve changed your mind
I’m afraid it’s too late
We’re concerned
You’re a threat
If you’ve done nothing wrong
You’ve got nothing to fear
If you’ve something to hide
You shouldn’t even be here
We’re concerned
You’re a threat
You’re not integral
To the project
Sterile
Immaculate
Rational
Perfect

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Safer computing with Windows XP after Microsoft ends support

Microsoft ended support for Windows XP on April 8, 2014.

This is not the end of the world for people still using Windows XP but Windows XP users need to be extra careful to stay safe and secure on the Internet.

Here are my 5 suggestions for Windows XP users - 

  1. Do not use Internet Explorer, use an alternate browser, for example Firefox.
  2. Use an antivirus, for example Avast!
  3. Keep your software up to date, for example install updates to Flash. 
  4. Be extra careful of  clicking on links in email or on web sites.
  5. Keep a backup of your important data.

Here is my detailed take on Windows XP, security, moving away from Windows XP and the future.

pop up windows proclaiming Windows XP End of Support

Windows XP End of Support

Windows XP background and end of support

Windows XP was installed on computers sold from October 2001 thru January 2007.  XP has undergone 3 Service Pack Updates and many security patches.  Microsoft decided to stop offering support for both security and financial reasons.  Microsoft wants to be rid of Windows XP because it is an old and less secure operating system.  Newer versions of Windows have more security built in.  Microsoft wants to save money by no longer paying staff to support XP and develop security updates for it.  Microsoft wants to generate revenue by pushing people into buying Windows upgrades or new computers and wants business and government that still rely on Windows XP to buy support, more on that below.

The fact that Microsoft is not patching security problems in Windows XP is creating a dangerous security problem for all XP users and arguably all users of the Internet.  But exactly how dangerous and how immediate a threat is debatable.  Most security vulnerabilities are in the browser and software that runs on Windows (Flash, Acrobat, Java, Office, etc).  Windows XP (excluding Internet Explorer) in later life was infrequently security patched .  One could argue that the operating system Windows XP is less a security problem and the software that is run on the computer is the greater security problem.  Security expert Steve Gibson believes this is the case and continues to use XP, more on that below.

Windows XP is still a big player in the world, many people, businesses and governments are still using Windows XP.   30% of all computers worldwide on the Internet still use XP.

Many of the Windows XP computers still in use today are way behind in their security updates.  These unpatched computers are a larger threat to security than patched cpmputers and could even disrupt the Internet at large with viruses, botnets, spam and other malware.  Illegal copies of Windows XP will not update.  Many of these illegal Windows PCs are in China and other countries that have freely stolen Windows.

Security:  more about the 5 tips listed above

Do not use Internet Explorer.  The browser  Internet Explorer (IE) has a history of being less secure than alternative browsers (such as Firefox).  IE is part of Windows and cannot be uninstalled from Windows.  Since it is part of Windows people tend to use it by default.  But you can ignore Internet Explorer.  Install an alternate browser such as Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, etc.  and ignore IE.  I recommend Firefox.  Firefox has useful security features built in, for example it will update itself automatically and can natively read PDF documents.

Use an antivirus, for example Avast!.  There are many good free and paid antivirus programs out there.  Free and paid antivirus programs are compared at PC Magazine and MaximumPC Magazine.  Most antivirus program companies are continuing to support Windows XP and even Microsoft will continue to support currently installed instances of Security Essentials  on XP until 2015 although you will get scare reminders that your Windows is out of date. For minimum malware protection I recommend using Avast! free for active antivirus and installing Malwarebytes free for an on demand virus scanner.  Paid subscription antivirus products such as Avast! and Malwarebytes will offer more features and protection.

Keep your software up to date.  Keeping your software up to date means installing the latest software updates and patches when they are offered by the software makers.  Keeping software secure is a never ending cat and mouse game – the bad guys find security holes in software and the software makers offer us security patches to plug the holes.  Although Microsoft no longer will keep Windows XP updated, we can keep all our other software updated and this will be a big security win.  If we assume Windows XP is a mature software with less security vulnerabilities to exploit, the bad guys will attack the newer more vulnerable software that we use - all about return on investment.   Programs that interact with the Internet are the most critical to keep updated.  Here are some examples of software and how they are updated.  The Internet browsers  Firefox and Chrome update themselves as needed.  Flash is a common browser add on that will alert you with a pop up that it needs to be updated, please do so.  Java is an add on computer language required for some web sites and games, update it when offered, more on Java below.  Adobe Acrobat reader is a commonly installed software, update it when offered, more on Acrobat below.  Microsoft Office programs will update every patch Tuesday by themselves.  Other Office programs like OpenOffice will offer updates.  In general update your software when the manufacturer offers an update.  This brings up the question, how do you know the update offer is legitimate?  No simple answer here, if the update offered looks like it came from the program it probably is legit.  If the update offered does not look legit it likely isn’t, for example visiting a questionable web site and being offered a video codec is likely malware.   Don’t accept software offered as you are roaming the Internet or reading email.

Be extra careful of clicking on links in email or on web sites.  Presently this is the most common way for a computer to be compromised by the bad guys.  An email can have an attachment, usually a picture or document, but it could also be a malware program sent by a bad guy.  The bad guys will try hard to make it look legitimate and useful.  Email can be spoofed which means the sender appears to be someone that you know but their name has been forged in the From field by some else.  Also email accounts may be hacked and used to send spam or malware.  A spoofed web site will look like the real thing but will try to harvest your username and password.  A click on a link or opening an attachment can install malware such as botnet software or a keystroke logger.  Botnet software lets a remote bad guy take over your computer to send spam or worse.  A keystroke logger will capture what you type, such as usernames and passwords, and send that info back to the bad guys.

Keep a backup of your important data.  Please keep backup copies of all your data that you would hate to lose.  Your computer stores your data on its hard drive.  By default this is one copy in one place.  Anything can happen to that one copy of electronic data and it could be lost forever -  accidental erasure of the data, malicious erasure of the data, the hard drive could catastrophically fail, the computer could be stolen, a virus could erase or lock the data, a natural disaster could destroy the computer.  There are many ways to backup and copy data.  The simplest would be to periodically copy your important data to a USB drive.  An external hard drive with Windows or third party backup software will back up data on a schedule.  A cloud backup company (for example Carbonite) will automatically back up new data as it is created to a cloud data storage site somewhere on the Internet.  Free and paid cloud storage is available, examples include Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, and Google Drive.  The more important the data is, the more copies in different places you need to keep because backup copies may be lost, destroyed or become inaccessible.  An example of cloud storage suddenly becoming inaccessible is megaupload.com which was shut down with no warning to all users.

Security:  Advanced tips

Create and use a Limited account.  By default the first account created in Windows XP is an Administrator account.  Administrator accounts have full privileges to manage the PC including changing system settings.  Limited accounts are prevented from changing system settings.  Therefore using a Limited account greatly reduces the danger of malware writing settings and viruses to the computer.  Running with a Limited account does have annoyances, for example, you may need to switch to an Administrator account to install software and some software will not run in a limited mode, ie VPN.  Security expert Steve Gibson uses a Limited account with Windows XP.

Disable or remove Java.  Java is a programming language add on for computers and has been a significant security risk lately.  Java is needed for some web sites and games.  If you don’t need it, uninstall it and at least disable it in your browser.

Acrobat software has had its share of security issues, consider replacing it with an alternate PDF reader.

Browser add ons.  Surfing the Internet is one of the biggest threats to computer (including Windows XP) security.  There are browser add ons that can help mitigate this threat, for example NoScript.

Install and use Microsoft’s Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (EMET) which is “a utility that helps prevent vulnerabilities in software from being successfully exploited.”   For advanced users.

Uninstall all software that you don’t need.  Any software is a vulnerability (attack surface as the security people say) and uninstalling any software that you don’t need is a good thing.

Leaving Windows XP – upgrade, new PC or switch

Upgrade your computer from Windows XP to Windows 8 or Windows 7.  I’m going to say this is not a good option for most people because if your computer came with XP, your computer is old and will not run Windows 8 or Windows 7 well.  There are also economic reasons not to upgrade – the Windows 8 upgrade will cost $119 USD list price, your computer may require more memory to run newer Windows (4GB memory is about $50) and a computer running XP is at least 8 years old and subject to old age issues such as hardware failures.  The upgrade process itself is complex, time consuming and expensive when done by professionals.  And don’t forget your time to adjust to the new version of Windows.

Buy a new PC with Windows 8 or Windows 7.  Yes, Windows 7 is still available if you look.

Abandon Windows.  You can leave Microsoft Windows behind and go Apple, Android or Linux.  Apple offers computers, laptops and iPad tablets.  Many vendors such as Samsung offer Android computers (Chromebooks) and tablets.  Linux can be installed on any PC hardware.   Also, you can do Internet on iPhones, Android phones, cheap tablets and iPods.  There will be a learning curve for a new operating system.

Change to Linux operating system.  This is a radical jump but if you are willing to learn a new operating system this is golden.  If your computer needs are basic, like get on the Internet, you will quickly learn to use Linux.  The good news is Linux is free, supports most PC hardware (even old PC hardware) and is considered very secure.  The bad news is the learning curve and some hardware may be trouble to connect (printers, webcams, etc).  Linux can be run from a DVD to test drive it.  Ubuntu is a popular version of Linux.

Windows XP is still in play for business and government

Many businesses and governments are still using Windows XP.  The danger is mitigated by isolating their networks from the Internet, carefully locking down the PC clients (with group policy) and subscribing to Microsoft’s paid Windows XP security updates.

Most ATM machines run Windows XP embedded which sounds dangerous but isn’t so much because XP embedded is a stripped down version of XP with less attack surface, the ATM network is isolated from the Internet and Microsoft is offering security updates for XP embedded business users for a fee.

Yes Microsoft is still creating security updates for Windows XP.  Microsoft stopped free security updates for the public and small business and now only supplies security updates to paying customers (business and government).

Moving forward with unsupported Windows XP

Microsoft blinked and updated Internet Explorer versions 6, 7, 8 that run on Windows XP in early May 2014, after the April 8, 2014 end of support.

pop up window showing Update History showing IE patched

XP IE8 patched May 3 2014

Microsoft pushed the usual Malicious Software Removal Tool (MSRT) to XP computers on May 13, 2014, on the second Tuesday update schedule demonstrating that Microsoft still cares about XP a little.

May 20, 2014 update.  Windows XP has now been “unsupported” for over a month now with no serious security issues reported.  Some security experts predicted all hell would break loose April 9, 2014 (the day after end of support) with Windows XP security being attacked by hackers with zero day exploits saved up to be unleashed after Microsoft support ended.  This did not happen.

May 28, 2014 update.  A hack has surfaced to allow Windows XP to continue to receive updates by tricking Microsoft into thinking the hacked XP is embedded.  Microsoft says this may break things in XP.  A reference at zdnet.com: Registry hack enables continued updates for Windows XP

My favorite security expert Steve Gibson (grc.com) has called all the drama about Windows XP “a tempest in a teapot.

Summary

Microsoft’s end of support for Windows XP is not the end of the world but XP users need to be more careful on the Internet to stay safer.

I have discussed ways to stay safer and offered ways to leave Windows XP.

These are my ideas and suggestions, your experiences may be different.

Share your ideas and suggestions with me.

Happy safe computing.

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Software that I use

Here is a list of software that I use on my PCs.

These software programs work for me so I recommend them.

Many are free, some are commercial products and some are free with paid versions that offer more features.

Use your favorite search engine to find out more about the programs and to download them.

Antivirus – full time

The full time antivirus I use is either Avast! Free or a free Microsoft product – Security Essentials (for Windows XP, Vista and 7) or Defender (for Windows 8).  The full time antivirus inspects files and Internet pages for malware in real time as they are accessed.  It automatically updates itself often for new virus threats.  Note only one full time antivirus should be installed.  Alternative full time antivirus programs include Kaspersky, AVG, McAfee, Norton and others.

Antivirus – on-demand

The on-demand virus scanner I use Malwarebytes.  If I ever suspect that I may have a malware problem – the PC suddenly runs slow or behaves oddly – then I stop what I’m doing and run Malwarebytes.  After starting Malwarebytes, update the virus definitions then run a quick or full scan.  I also run Malwarebytes once a month or so for maintenance.  An alternative on-demand virus scanner is SuperAntiSpyware.

Alternate Browsers

The Microsoft browser Internet Explorer (IE) is part of Windows but is considered the least secure browser.  I use Firefox or Chrome instead of IE.  Other alternatives include Safari and Opera.  Please use an alternate browser for better Internet security.

Email

I use the online services Gmail, Hotmail/Outlook and Yahoo for email.  I do not recommend storing your email in local programs such as Outlook, Windows Mail, Eudora, etc. unless you have a specific reason.  Online mail services have the big advantages of 1) being accessible from any Internet device and 2) being automatically backed up.

Office programs – word processing and spreadsheets

I use Microsoft Office (Word and Excel) or Google Docs.  Alternatives include OpenOffice, LibreOffice, Microsoft SkyDrive and even the built in Windows WordPad for simple document creation.  Cloud services (Google Docs, Skydrive and Office 365) are handy because the documents are available from any Internet connected device and are backed up automatically.

Backup

I use 2 data backup systems – a local USB drive and an Internet cloud backup service.  For my local backup I use the Windows Backup program and a 2 TB external USB hard drive.  For my cloud backup service I use Carbonite (about $60/year).  Both systems take time and care to set up.  Windows Backup must be configured for what, when and where files are backed up.  Carbonite must also be configured – not all file types (ie video) are backed up by default.  After backup is working, it is essential to test the backups by retrieving data and confirming that it is working.  There are many alternative local backup programs and backup services.  Backup could be as simple as copying files to a USB drive.   Please backup any stuff that you would hate to lose.

Cloud storage services

I use Google Drive, Dropbox and SkyDrive for storing documents in the cloud.  Cool feature: Google Drive and Dropbox both also provide an automatic upload/backup of my Android mobile phone pictures with the Android apps Google+ and Dropbox installed and configured.   Google Drive and SkyDrive provide office capabilities (word processing, spreadsheet) programs as well.  Alternative cloud services include iCloud, UbuntuOne, Box, Sugarsync and others.

PC files cleanup

I use CCleaner to delete temporary files on my PC.  Temp files include browser cache files, system temp files, system dump files and more.  This program will also delete browser and program history for privacy.  Although one can delete files and history from within browsers and Windows Disk Cleanup, this is way easier.  CCleaner also has advanced PC maintenance tools in one convenient place.

Media player

I use VLC media player for video and audio files.  Alternatives include Windows Media Player and iTunes.

Collect, store and share data between devices

Evernote is a terrific program to store notes, clippings and information between all your Internet devices plus it is all backed up.

Password manager

I use LastPass to store my passwords.  I just have to remember my LastPass password and LastPass will automatically log me on to web sites.  Remember that unique, complex passwords are important for security.

Following is a list of software that I find useful for specialized and advanced projects

  • Managing updates on my PCs – Secunia PSI

  • Video and audio calls – Skype

  • Make backups of DVDs – DVD Shrink

  • Edit audio – Audacity

  • Burn data and image files – ImgBurn

  • Mount iso images – DAEMON Tools

  • Data compression – 7-zip

  • Data and disk encryption – TrueCrypt

  • ftp client – FileZilla

  • Disk recovery – SpinRite

  • NTFS file system checking – Windows Disk Tools Error Checking

  • File access problems – Unlocker

  • Alternative PDF reader – Foxit

  • Software uninstaller – Revo

  • VPN – ProXPN

  • Screen capture – ScreenHunter

  • File undelete – Recouva

  • Disk use visualization – Spacemonger

  • File split and join – hjsplit

  • Viewing PC specifications – Speccy, System Information for Windows

  • Viewing Windows, Office product keys – Magic Jellybean

  • Disk imaging and cloning – Acronis True Image
  • Remote desktop assistance – TeamViewer
  • Microsoft on-demand virus scanners – Windows Defender Offline and Microsoft Windows Malicious Software Removal Tool
  • Free blog site – wordpress.com
  • File synchronizing between computers – BitTorrent Sync
  • File synchronizing between devices – Microsoft SyncToy
  • Photo editing – Windows Paint, Polyview
  • Storing and sharing photos on the Internet – Flickr (Yahoo), Picasa (Google)
  • Social Media – Facebook, Google+
  • Video sharing – YouTube

I realise that there are many more good programs and software out there.  What are your favorites?

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PC Maintenance – take care of your PC

Like any machine, a PC will benefit from maintenance.   A few routine maintenance tasks will help your PC run better and safer.

The average PC user will benefit from quarterly and yearly maintenance.

For quarterly maintenance I recommend

  • delete unnecessary computer files (ie Internet browser cache) with CCleaner
  • check that Windows Update is working
  • check that the antivirus software is updating and scanning
  • run a secondary on-demand virus scanner (ie MalwareBytes)
  • check your backups

For yearly maintenance I recommend

  • cleaning the inside of the PC

In this post I’ll explain why I recommend these actions, how to do them and at the end some advanced suggestions.  If all this sounds advanced, check with your local kid, nerd or me (for a fair fee).

Deleting unnecessary computer files

Our computers store a lot of information on the disk as we use them – our pictures, email, and documents are data that we like to save.  But the PC stores a lot of information we really don’t need like Internet junk and log files.  The worst offender is the Internet browser cache.  An excess number of files can slow down a PC.

The Internet browser cache is where the PC saves Internet web sites that you visit.    Originally the cache was useful to speed up your Internet in the days of slow Internet connections.  Now the cache is a bunch of files on your PC that you do not need and will slow down your PC and compromise your security.  The cache can grow to thousands of files!

There are multiple ways to clear the Internet cache (see below) but I recommend installing and running the free, highly regarded program Piriform CCleaner.  CCleaner not only deletes the Internet cache but also deletes a lot of other files that you really don’t need all in one simple task.

CCleaner

CCleaner is a good tool to delete unnecessary files on your PC.

Without CCleaner you can also manually delete the Internet cache from the browser menu – following are IE and Firefox techniques

Internet Explorer:

Internet Explorer - delete history - 1

Internet Explorer – delete history – 1

Internet Explorer - delete history - 2

Internet Explorer – delete history – 2

Firefox:

Firefox-delete-history-1

Firefox-delete-history-1

Firefox-delete-history-2

Firefox-delete-history-2

Keeping your software up-to-date

Keeping your PC software up-to-date is very important for security.  Important software to keep updated includes Microsoft Windows itself, your antivirus software, Adobe Flash, and if you have them, Acrobat Reader, Java and Microsoft Office.  Actually ALL software needs to be kept up to date for optimum security but these are the common ones.

Microsoft Windows has the Windows Update feature that checks daily for updates and downloads and installs them as needed when the feature is enabled.   The feature is enabled by default (good) but you will want to periodically check that it is enabled and doing its thing.  Microsoft likes to save up its updates for a monthly download and install on the second Tuesday of each month, street name “Patch Tuesday,” but will push critical updates at any time.

Windows Update

Updates often require a reboot which explains why you occasionally find your PC rebooted with an information bubble saying “Your computer was recently updated!”

Your computer was recently updated!

Your computer was recently updated!

Antivirus updates

Your antivirus will automatically update itself with new virus definitions at least daily and periodically run virus scans.  This is normal.  The new virus definitions help keep your PC protected from new malware in the constant cat and mouse battle between the bad guys and the antivirus manufacturers trying to protect us.  Antivirus programs will work “real time” by inspecting files that we open, web sites that we visit, email that we receive and more.  Antivirus programs will also run a scan of files on the PC on a schedule (ie weekly) to look for problems.  People that leave their PC on 24×7 won’t notice a file scan run in the middle of the night but it can be a big performance hit for people that only turn on their PC when they want to use it because after booting, the antivirus program will realize that it has not run lately and kick off a file scan which will slow down the PC for a period of time.

To check that your antivirus is updating and running scans, open it and check history (Microsoft Security Essentials shown here)

Updating OK

Microsoft Security Essentials - Update tab

Microsoft Security Essentials – Update tab

Last scan OK

Microsoft Security Essentials last scan

Microsoft Security Essentials last scan

Other software such as Flash, Acrobat, iTunes and Java need to be kept up to date also.  These softwares will alert you that a new version is available and offer a way to update.  This is all good.  Even better is software silently updating as needed (Firefox, Chrome for example).

Secondary on-demand virus scanner

Although you have one antivirus program running real time, I recommend that you have a second on-demand antivirus program available for a second opinion.  My favorite is MalwareBytes, a free and highly regarded antivirus.  Download and install this antivirus and use as necessary.  There are two times when I suggest that you use MalwareBytes to run a scan – if you suspect that your PC may be infected by a virus or as a routine maintenance scan.  An on-demand scanner means that it only scans for malware when you run it, it isn’t running all the time.  This is OK for your secondary antivirus.  When you run it, always updated it with new virus definitions before scanning and do a full scan if you have the time which can take 1 or more hours!

Backups.  This is most important.  Please backup your data.  Think of the pictures, documents, data that you would hate to lose.  Make copies.  Back up.  Some strategies to backup

  • get an external (ie USB) disk and use Windows Backup or other backup program to copy files to the external disk (good quick recovery, complicated setup, single location of failure)
  • manually copy important files to a USB disk or thumb drive
  • copy important files to a free cloud storage service (ie Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, Dropbox, …)
  • subscribe to an Internet backup service (ie Carbonite, Amazon)

Having your data on a laptop, desktop, external USB drive are all subject to theft and disaster loss.  Having your data on a cloud service is subject to the cloud business failure (think megaupload) and loss of account access.  So for really important data put it in multiple locations (PC, USB, burn to disk, cloud, mom’s house, your attorney’s office, etc).  Protect your data in proportion to how much you’d hate to lose it. Test recovering data.  Encrypt sensitive data.

Clean PC

Cleaning a PC may seem like avoidable house work but heat is bad for a computer and dust is a major way to defeat the computer cooling system.  Computers have fans, heat sinks and openings to create air flow for cooling.  All can be slowed and defeated by dust, dust bunnies and worse.  Overheated computer components can fail.  You can take the side off of your PC and check it for dust and debris and if present blow it out with a can of compressed air.  I actually use a leaf blower on the patio!  Laptops are also highly susceptible and can be cleaned with with compressed air blowing into the cooling intake and exhaust ports.  By the way, don’t block these ports unintentionally by setting your laptop on a soft surface like a bed or sofa.

Advanced tips

You can place icons on your desktop for easy access to these tasks and to remind you to do them.  Group and place them on the right desktop for emphasis.

desktop icons

desktop icons

Keeping software up-to-date can be a challenge as each vendor has their own ways to check and update their software.  Another pitfall is a bogus recommendation to “update your flash.”  One unified solution for monitoring all software is secunia.com

Speccy and Speedfan can help monitor temperatures.

Checking Windows Error Log may reveal Windows problems.

General performance issues can be diagnosed with the Windows utility Task Manager.

Disk fragmentation is not a problem for the average user.  Vista and later automatically run disk defragmentation.

Registry errors are rarely an issue.  Don’t fall for that advertisement.

For the average home user, I recommend maintenance tasks as quarterly and yearly, your mileage may vary.  If you use your PC a lot or run a business on it or visit dodgy web sites then you will need more frequent maintenance and precautions.  If your PC is acting up you may need immediate remedy.

Happy computing.

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End of support for Windows XP

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Microsoft has announced the end of support for Windows XP as of April 8, 2014.

This means that after that date Microsoft will no longer produce security updates or offer support for Windows XP.

People that use Windows XP are going to be in a tough spot.  They must replace or upgrade their PC or their PC will become increasingly vulnerable to exploits from the Internet as bad guy hackers find new security holes in Windows XP and exploit them with viruses and other malware.

Another problem already happening is the lack of Internet Explorer browser support for Windows XP by Microsoft.  The last version of IE that Microsoft supports for XP is version 8.  This is considered an old version and the Internet community is moving on.  Users are already seeing messages like the following even though they are running the latest version of IE available for Windows XP.

Yikes! It looks like you're using an old internet browser!

Yikes! It looks like you’re using an old internet browser!

Losing Windows XP support is going to affect a lot of people.  Recent statistics show that about 23% of the computers visiting the Internet world wide are running Windows XP and the number is slowly decreasing (from StatCounter.com).  Click graph to enlarge.

Top 7 Operating Systems from Apr 2012 to Mar 2013 world wide

Top 7 Operating Systems from Apr 2012 to Mar 2013 world wide

This leaves Windows XP users with few options

  • buy a new computer
  • upgrade the operating system on the Windows XP computer
  • deal with it

Buying a new computer is one option.  One could buy a new PC with Windows 8 or a used PC with Windows Vista, 7 or 8.  Or one could buy a Mac.

Upgrading one’s current computer to Windows 8 (or 7) may be a possibility.  If the computer is old enough to have Windows XP installed (vintage October 2001 – January 2007) the hardware may not be powerful enough to support Windows 8.

  • Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster with support for PAE, NX, and SSE2 (more info)
  • RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit)
  • Hard disk space: 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
  • Graphics card: Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM driver

Older PCs may not meet the processor or graphics card requirements.  RAM can be increased to 1 or 2 GB if necessary but older memory modules are expensive.

Microsoft offers “Upgrade Assistant,” a program that you can download and run on your current PC that will advise you if your hardware can support Windows 8.

Then there is the cost of the upgrade.  You better sit down for this.  The price of a Windows 8 upgrade is $119.99 retail USD.  The street price for this upgrade is about $90.

If the PC owner is not comfortable doing the upgrade, they will have to pay someone to do it or find a willing friend.

Some corporations, businesses and a few individuals may have software that will only run on Windows XP and are faced with another roadblock to upgrading – rewriting or replacing the software that will break.  The cost of upgrading may be a deterrent.

Another “upgrade” possibility is to delete Windows and run Linux.  Linux is a fine operating system, will run on your existing hardware and is free, but there is a learning curve.

One could also choose to not upgrade and deal with the consequences.  The computer will become more susceptible to Internet viruses as time goes on due to a lack of security updates.  It becomes even more important to keep the antivirus program functional and up to date.  The user will have to be more careful on the Internet and when the computer is no longer trustworthy, stop using it for financial and private matters because passwords and data may be vulnerable to theft.  The lack of browser support could be managed by switching to a browser that is supported and updated like Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, etc.

In the last week I have seen Windows XP in use in homes, stores, businesses and in TV newsrooms.  The end of support for Windows XP is going to cause pain for many people.

In defense of Microsoft, there comes a time to let go of old technology and move on to better, safer technology.

Windows XP in a newsroom.  Note the familiar XP wallpaper on the PC on the left.

Windows XP in a newsroom. Note the familiar XP wallpaper on the PC on the left.

Who knows, maybe Microsoft will change their tune at the public outcry or be encouraged by the government to support Windows XP for national security reasons.

Stay tuned.

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