Saturday 20 May 2017

Protect your technology

What impact would it have if your computer stopped working? If every computer in your business stopped functioning, could you continue? Would your business survive?

Given how many companies rely on technology for their communications, accounts, personnel records and customer databases, I suspect that if they failed most companies would simply fold.

Yes, you’ll say, we have backups of everything but what if they were corrupted as well?

Last week the BBC reported that “200,000 victims in 150 countries” had been infected by a piece of malware called WannaCry. The malicious software had affected hospitals throughout the UK and the attack “left hospitals and doctors unable to access patient data, and led to the cancellation of operations and medical appointments.” The attack also affected systems in several European countries and victims in Russia were hit hard.

WannaCry is an example of “ransomware”, a particularly vicious descendant of the old-fashioned computer virus. Once it gets onto the victim’s computer it then encrypts the contents. All the documents on the computer are still there but you can’t open them any more. Instead the victim is presented with a message saying that if they want to access their documents they need to pay the criminals behind the scheme the equivalent of P3,000 but not by any conventional means. Like all criminals who kidnap for ransom, they want paying in an untraceable form, in this case using Bitcoin.

This particular example is focussed specifically on Windows computers and it seems that the people most likely to be infected are either those using older version of Windows, or those who haven’t been downloading the regular security updates that Microsoft releases. It also does its best to spread itself across any network it finds itself occupying so once one computer is infected, all the others on the network can be infected as well.

A danger with ransomware that encrypts your data is that it can even encrypt your backups so it’s not as if you can just delete everything and restore them from yesterday’s backup.

So what would happen to your business if all your files were suddenly inaccessible? Would you be able to continue? How would you sell anything? How many customers would you have left by the end of the week?

The solution is simple. Secure your computers. Keep your software up to date, switch on the firewall that comes with all computers these days, use the anti-virus and anti-malware protection mechanisms that are freely available and then be careful. Don’t download anything from web sites you don’t already trust, don’t allow your staff to download software at all, fire anyone who downloads pirated music or video files and ban people from sticking their sticks into your available slots.

Yes, it’s just like protecting yourself from any other type of infection. Don’t allow alien substances to penetrate your defences.

So is this a consumer issue? Yes, of course it is.

I don’t want to be in a relationship with a bank, insurance company, pension scheme or government department that doesn’t protect itself against security threats, either conventional one such as break-ins and armed robberies but also modern ones such as cyber-attacks.

Why? Because one of the things they have that criminals want to steal is my information. They want to steal my user id and password for my bank’s online banking scheme so they can sign on and steal my money.

I also don’t want to leave myself unprotected. I don’t want hackers infecting my computer and either holding me to ransom, stealing my personal details or hijacking my computer and using it to spread their malware further.

Ironically protecting yourself from cyber infection is about as easy and cheap as it is to protect yourself against any other form of infection. If you use a modern release of Windows, it comes with built-in protection mechanisms. You can buy software on top of that but you really don’t need to, despite what many retailers will tell you.

Most importantly you must keep your version of Windows up-to-date. If you’re still using Windows XP then are asking for serious trouble. That hasn’t been safely protected for several years and you need to move to a more modern version.

But what if you can’t afford to do that? What if Windows 10 is out of your price range? What if a computer powerful enough to run it is also too pricey?

Then be radical. Go for the entirely legal, safe and free option. Yes, I DO mean free. Install a version of Unix such as Ubuntu or Linux. You can download this for free and it comes with the equivalent of Word, Excel and Powerpoint and it’s really easy to use. And it even runs on the oldest, lowest power machines you can find. I’ve done it several times and I have computers at home and in the office running it right now. And did I mention it’s entirely free? And did I also mention that like its distant cousin, the Mac, a computer running Unix is almost immune from viruses and malware?

Price really is no excuse for most people these days.

I think the lesson is that technology is at the heart of almost everything we do in 2017 and we need to catch up in order to protect ourselves. We need to understand the technology we use better and for some of us that’s easy but for many others it’s a scary, alien environment. That’s one of the reasons we see the curse of modern technological life: missing airtime and data. Yes, our cellphone network providers have occasionally had technological problems and have lost our data but on the vast majority of occasions it really was us that used the data, we just didn’t know we’d done it. Nobody had taken the time to explain how much data the Facebook app uses, how much video files use and how the setting within these apps can exhaust your data in moments, particularly now we have 4G networks.

I suppose you could wait for companies to start educating us about these things but I think it’s too important to wait. Start educating yourself on how to use your technology safely.

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