Justin Cook - Director
Collin Jackson - Network Security Analyst/Senior Technician
Tyler Gelzaines, Assistant Technician
The Aransas County IT Department is responsible for the overall county computing environment. It is our role to maintain a safe, operational, and secure computing environment through regular system maintenance, security testing, patching, backup and recovery tasks, purchasing hardware and software, technical support, and incident management. We are also responsible for maintaining regular updates to the County's Web Sites. Furthermore, it is our goal to provide top-notch support services to all users of the County's computing infrastructure.
Below are some common tips to help protect yourself and the County's computing environment.
10 Common Mistakes for Users to Watch Out for:
1. Plugging your computer into the wall without a surge protector.
Here’s one that actually can physically destroy your computer equipment, as well as the data it holds. You may think your systems are in danger only during an electrical storm, but anything that interrupts the electrical circuit and then starts the current back again can fry your components. Something as simple as someone turning on an appliance that’s plugged into the same circuit (especially a high voltage one such as a hair dryer, electric heater, or air conditioner) can cause a surge, or a surge may be caused by a tree limb touching a power line. If you have a power outage, you may experience a surge when the electricity comes back on. You can protect your systems against damage from power surges by always using a surge protector, but it’s important to be aware that most cheap surge protectors will survive only a single surge and need to be replaced afterward. An Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) is better than a surge protector; it has a battery that keeps power flowing smoothly even when there’s an outage, to give you time to gracefully shut down.
2. Surfing the internet without a firewall.
Many home users plug their computers right into their spiffy new cable or DSL modems and hop onto the Internet without realizing that they’re putting themselves at risk from viruses and attackers. Every Internet-connected computer should be protected by a firewall; this can be a firewall built into the broadband modem or router, a separate firewall appliance that sits between the modem/router and the computer, a server at the network’s edge running firewall software, or personal firewall software installed on the computer (such as ICS/Windows Firewall built into Windows XP or a third-party firewall program like Kerio, Comodo,or ZoneAlarm). One advantage of personal firewalls on laptop computers is that they’re still with you when you take the computer on the road and plug into a hotel’s DSL or cable port or connect to a wireless hotspot. Just having a firewall isn’t enough, though. You must also be sure it’s turned on and configured properly to protect you.
3. Neglecting to run or update anti-virus and anti-spyware programs.
Let’s face it: Antivirus programs can be a royal pain. They’re always blocking some application you want to use, you often have to disable them to install new software, and they have to be updated on a regular basis to do any good. Seems like the subscription is always expiring and prompting you to renew it--for a fee, in many cases. But in today’s environment, you can’t afford to go without virus protection. The malicious programs that AV software detects--viruses, Trojans, worms, etc.--can not only wreak havoc on your system but can spread via your computer to the rest of the network. In extreme cases, they can bring down the whole network. Spyware is another growing threat; these are programs that install themselves on your computer (usually without your knowledge) and collect information from your system that is then sent back to the spyware program’s author or vendor. Antivirus programs often don’t address spyware so it’s important to run a dedicated spyware detection and removal program.
4. Installing and uninstalling lots of programs.
You like to be on the cutting edge, so you often install and try out new software. Beta programs are usually free and give you a chance to sample neat new features before most people. There are also many freeware and shareware programs made available as Internet downloads by their authors. We know you’d never do it, but some users even install pirated software or "warez." The more programs you install, the more likely you are to run across ones that either include malicious code or that are poorly written and cause your system to behave improperly or crash. The risk is greater with pirated programs. Even if you install only licensed, final-release commercial software, too many installations and uninstallations can gunk up the registry. Not all uninstall routines completely remove program remnants and at the least, this practice can cause your system to slow down over time. You should install only the programs that you really need, stick with legitimate software, and try to minimize the number you install and uninstall.
5. Keeping disks full and fragmented.
One of the results of installing and uninstalling lots of programs (or adding and deleting data of any kind) is that it fragments your disk. Disk fragmentation occurs because of the way information is stored on the disk: On a new, clean disk, when you save a file it’s stored in contiguous sections called clusters. If you delete a file that takes up, for example, five clusters, and then save a new file that takes eight clusters, the first five clusters’ worth of data will be saved in the empty space left by the deletion and the remaining three will be saved in the next empty spaces. That makes the file fragmented, or divided. To access that file, then, the disk’s read heads won’t find all the parts of the file together but must go to different locations on the disk to retrieve it all. That makes it slower to access. If the file is part of a program, the program will run more slowly. A badly fragmented disk will slow down to a crawl. You can use the disk defragmenter built into Windows (Programs | Accessories | System Tools) or a third-party defrag program to rearrange these pieces of files so that they’re placed contiguously on the disk. Another common cause of performance problems and application misbehavior is a disk that’s too full. Many programs create temporary files and need extra free space on the disk to operate. You can use Windows XP’s Disk Cleanup Tool or a third-party program to find and delete rarely used files, or you can manually delete files to clear space on your disk.
6. Opening all attachments.
7. Clicking on everything.
Opening attachments isn’t the only type of mouse click that can get you in trouble. Clicking on hyperlinks in e-mail messages or on Web pages can take you to Web sites that have embedded ActiveX controls or scripts that can perform all sorts of malicious activities, from wiping your hard disk to installing a backdoor program on your computer that a hacker can use to get in and take control of it.Clicking the wrong link can also take you to inappropriate Web sites that feature pornography, pirated music or software, or other content that can get you in trouble if you’re using a computer on the job or even get you in trouble with the law.Don’t give in to "click mania." Think before you click a link. Links can also be disguised in "phishing" messages or on Web sites to appear to take you to a different site from the ones they really point to. For example, the link might say www.safesite.com, but it actually takes you to www.gotcha.com. You can often find out the real URL by hovering over the link without clicking it.
8. Share and share alike.
Your mother taught you that it’s nice to share, but when you’re on a network, sharing can expose you to dangers. If you have file and printer sharing enabled, others can remotely connect to your computer and access your data. Even if you haven’t created any shared folders, by default Windows systems have hidden "administrative" shares for the root of each drive. A savvy hacker may be able to use these shares to get in. One way to prevent that is to turn off file and printer sharing--if you don’t need to make any of the files on your computer accessible across the network. This is especially a good idea if you’re connecting your laptop to a public wireless hotspot. You can find instructions on how to do so here. If you do need to make shared folders accessible, it’s important that they be protected by both share-level permissions and file-level (NTFS) permissions. Also ensure that your account and the local administrative account have strong passwords.
9. Picking the wrong passwords.
That brings us to another common mistake that can expose you to attacks: picking the wrong password. Even if you don’t belong to a network where the administrator forces you to select strong passwords and change them regularly, you should do so. Don’t pick passwords that are easy to guess, such as your birthdate, loved one’s name, social security number, etc. Longer passwords are harder to crack, so make your password at least eight characters long; 14 is even better. Popular password-cracking methods use "dictionary" attacks, so don’t use words that are in the dictionary. Passwords should contain a combination of alpha, numeric, and symbol characters for best security. A long string of nonsense characters may create a password that’s tough to crack, but if you can’t remember it, you’ll defeat the purpose by writing it down (where an intruder may be able to find it). Instead, create a phrase you can remember easily and use the first letters of each word, along with logical numbers and symbols. For example: "My cat ate a mouse on the 5th day of June" becomes "Mc8amot5doJ."
10. Ignoring the need for a backup and recovery plan.
Even if you follow all these suggestions, an attacker may crash your system or your data may be corrupted or get wiped out by a hardware problem. That’s why it’s essential that you always back up your important information and have a plan for recovering from a system failure. Most computer users know they should back up, but many never get around to it. Or they make an initial backup but don’t update it regularly. Use the built-in Windows backup program (Ntbackup.exe in Windows NT, 2000, and XP) or a third-party backup program and schedule backups to occur automatically. Store backed up data on a network server or removable drive in a location away from the computer itself, in case of a natural disaster like flood, fire, or tornado. Remember that the data is the most important thing on your computer. The operating system can be reinstalled and so can applications, but it may be difficult or impossible to recreate your original data. (See "10 ways to protect your data" for additional suggestions.) Nonetheless, you can save time and frustration by backing up your system information too. You can create mirror images of your disks using popular "ghost" or "clone" programs. This will allow you to restore the system quickly instead of going through the tedious installation process.
This list of 10 items was adapted from Tech Republic. Copyright ©2006 CNET Networks, Inc. All rights reserved.