Category Archives: Backups

Backups

One of the best things you can do to protect your PC is to perform regular backups. Nightly backups are best – that’s how almost all business operate (some businesses go one step further and do backups every hour!). But for home use this is a bit of a burden, so you should be doing weekly backups, at least.

external drive There are so many ways these days to do a backup. Some common methods are:

  • Copy your important files to a flash drive. Flash drives are so cheap these days, they’re reliable and are large enough to hold your most important documents. Backing up is just a matter of dragging your files across using something like Windows Explorer (or the equivalent in your OS)
  • Using a built-in backup program. I personally don’t like built-in backup programs, they’re often tricky to use and don’t offer enough features. But systems like Windows come with a built in backup program so you could begin by using it.
  • 3rd party backup programs – this is where you get the most value. For a modest fee you can purchase a backup program that will get the job done how you want. I prefer Acronis TrueImage Home because:
  • It backs up everything, a complete image of my PC. There won’t be anything left out, and if my hard drive dies I can restore the system exactly how it was
  • It’s simple to use
  • It has so many features that as my needs change it will be able to provide the backups I need
  • It’s not very expensive
  • Internet backups – there are now many backup systems that store your files somewhere on the internet. The idea is that if everything in your home disappears (e.g. by theft or fire), your data is somewhere on the internet and you can restore it when you have a new PC. These are great for many people. E.g. http://mozy.com
  • Having a good backup is extremely important. There are so many things that can go wrong with computers, from hard drive crashes, theft, to malware that takes your files hostage. Having a backup is common sense, it’s a cheap simple insurance against all the things that can go wrong.

    You should also have more than one backup. Using external drives is a good option these days, they’re affordable, and you can keep one at a friend or relative’s house as added insurance.

    How not to do backups:

    • RAID (disk mirroring, or disk striping) is not a backup. It’s a form of data redundancy, there’s a fundamental difference.
    • Overwriting backups – if you only have one backup and you overwrite it every time you do another backup, there’s a brief moment where you have no backups (during the backup itself). I’ve seen it before, the computer dies half way through a backup and you’re left without a working computer and with half a backup. This is no good.
    • Relying on Windows System Restore is not good enough. There are still so many things that can go wrong and leave you without your previous files, photos, etc.

    So how do you do backups? Post your comments below. We’re also running a poll on backups.

    Ransomware

    Ransomware is malware that holds your files for ransom. Here’s a real life example of how it works:

    1. You click on a link to a web page. This web page has been hacked but you don’t know that.
    2. A message comes up on your screen telling you that you might have malware on your PC.
    3. You click on a button to start their scanning program. It pretends to do a scan of your PC. This fake program can be called AntiVirus2009, FileFixerPro, or FileFix Professional.
    4. In the background it’s going through everything in your My Documents folder and encrypting all of the files. The encrypted files are now useless to you.
    5. A message comes up asking you for $50 to get a program that will unencrypt your files.
    6. If you pay, you may or may not receive a program that unencrypts them. The hackers would also then have your credit card details.

    It’s a terrible situation to be in.

    There are quite a few things you can do right now to prevent this from happening:

    • Make a backup of your files. If you’ve never made a backup before then try to do it today, don’t waste time. If you ever lose your files, or you’re a victim of ransomware, you can just recover from your backup.
    • When unexpected windows popup asking to do a scan of your PC, have a good think who’s asking. It’s an unsolicited request, so it’s probably a scam.
    • Install a good anti-virus package. One that scans every web page you access.
    • Start using one of the alternative web browsers, such as Chrome, Opera, FireFox, or Safari. These four browsers are better at detecting hacked web pages and at preventing malicious code from running. (They’re better than IE but not 100% safe).
    • Keep reading Fraudo to stay on top of these scams. You can subscribe to the RSS feed or by email (the email option is on the top right corner of this page).

    And if you’re unfortunate enough to have this happen to you, there’s a free tool that may be able to recover your files. I bolded the word may because the hacker’s technology is getting better all the time and if they did things right it would be impossible to unencrypt it without paying. But for now you can try the method shown on this page.

    Windows Steady State

    If you use Window XP or Windows Vista, Microsoft has a tool that could be useful to some people. It’s meant more for shared computers, or for any PC that’s at greater risk of infection.

    tools What it does is fairly simple. Every time you reboot the PC, Steady State will restore it to how it was before. So no matter how many viruses, spyware and adware you end up accidentally installing. it becomes fresh and anew.

    You need to install it and set it up correctly, and for most people it might be a good idea to get some advice from someone who’s IT savvy, just to make sure you take full advantage of this great tool.

    Best of all is that it’s free, as long as you have a genuine Windows XP or Vista license.

    While you should still be responsible with how you use a computer, what you download and which web sites you visit, this tool is great tool for certain people.

    More info and a download link here.

    Another Symbian Virus

    Nokia N95There’s a new virus affecting mobile phones (cell phones) that use Symbian series 60. It’s been detected in China and is called Kiazha-A Trojan.

    It gets transmitted through Bluetooth or MMS messages so you can’t completely avoid receiving it but you can delete it if it arrives on your phone.

    It first deletes all text messages in the phone then displays a message asking for RMB 50 yuan (US$7) to get them back.

    We have a list here showing some of the more popular phones that are vulnerable. If your phone uses Symbian S60 then be aware of virus messages like this one and delete them if you receive it.

    It’s also a good idea to backup your phone’s contents to a memory card every couple of months.

    Windows powered phones are also susceptible to viruses, as we’ve mentioned here.

    G-Archiver Password Theft

    G-Archiver is an archival tool for Gmail. It lets you backup your Gmail emails to your computer. It’s been discovered that it also has a darker purpose.

    emailG-Archiver costs US$29.95, and it does what it claims. To use it you enter your Gmail username and password, and it downloads emails to your computer as a backup.

    Unfortunately the program has also been sending people’s usernames and password to the program’s creator (identified as John Terry).

    If you’ve used G-Archiver before then uninstall it and change your Gmail password.

    Whole Disk Encryption

    briefcase lockIf you carry a notebook outside of your home or office then Whole Disk Encryption is a technology you should be interested in. It’s also called Full Disk Encryption. First let’s identify the problem.

    Most people who carry notebook computers (laptops) keep sensitive files on the machine’s drive. Business documents, business databases, contact lists, emails, chat logs, password lists, etc. The most common situation is someone carrying confidential documents on the computer.

    If the notebook is lost or stolen then whoever holds the notebook computer has access to the files. Login passwords aren’t enough to protect the documents, they’re easily recovered by anyone.

    A more worrying trend is for international business travellers who carry confidential data on their notebooks. passportThere have been many instances of airport customs staff not only inspecting the notebook for banned items but they’re now looking in the notebook’s hard drive and looking through any documents stored there. Their excuse is that they have to search for anything that’s a threat to national security. Irrespective of why they’re doing this the point is that someone else can gain access to your files at airports. Read this article for an example. And for examples of lost or stolen notebooks see here.

    Most large companies are now telling their staff to wipe all documents off notebook computers before travelling. This is excellent advice.

    Another solution is to use whole disk encryption. This is a software technology that encodes the entire drive so that it’s unreadable without a password. At present this technology is rarely used on notebooks.

    Advantages:

    • It’s not possible for someone to extract files from a lost or stolen notebook computer
    • You don’t have to remember to turn it on or to prepare anything before you leave home or the office. It’s always enabled

    Disadvantages:

    • Not all encryption programs are free (read below for some good news on free software)
    • It slows down the computer
    • You have to enter another password before using the computer
    • It doesn’t protect you from malware (trojans etc). You still need a good antivirus system
    • You must have a backup of all your data at home or at the office. If something goes wrong with the computer then there’s no way to recover the data without a backup
    • Security is only as good as your password. If you use your car number plate or some other easy to guess password then it’s not really secure. You need to use a good password.

    notebook in the park So with more disadvantages than advantages you’re probably put off. It depends how valuable your files are. If you’re a lawyer carrying around all your client’s documents then your files are probably quite valuable, and you should be doing everything in your power to stop strangers getting at them.

    How does it work?

    The technical explanations are beyond the scope of this article. It’s enough to know that it encrypts all of the drive. Older encryption programs encrypt some files only and smart hackers can usually recover all or part of documents. Therefore the “whole disk” part of the encryption program is important. The disk is completely unreadable and unusable without the password.

    What whole disk encryption programs are available?

    Recently there has been some progress on this and there are now good free versions including ones for Mac notebooks, as well as commercial solutions.

    Free Windows Solutions:

    There are quite a few solutions, below are the more popular ones available today.

    • BitLocker – it comes with Windows Vista Enterprise, Windows Vista Ultimate, and Windows Server 2008
    • TrueCrypt – a popular open source solution (see notes below). Available for Windows, Mac and Linux.

    Commercial Solutions:

    Below are low cost commercial solutions. There are many expensive enterprise level solutions not listed here.

    • PGP – This program has been around for a very long time and is trusted by many people and companies. On the 13th Feb 2008 a version was also made for Apple Macs.

    Summary

    If you take your computer outside of a secure environment (home, office, etc) and you have anything on there you wouldn’t like others to have then whole disk encryption is a must.

    As for airport customs and other law enforcement agencies, a lot of countries have laws making it possible for them to demand your password. So while you can keep random strangers from reading your data it’s really up to you how you comply with legal requests to hand over data. At least you have a choice.

    Notes:

    Open Source: in security it’s often a good thing to make programs or algorithms open source. It enables the programming community or security community to review the code and find any possible bugs as quickly as possible. It’s also a form of full disclosure. With commercial solutions you have to trust a company that they didn’t include a backdoor for whatever reason. With open source solutions everything’s exposed for public review.

    Keep critical software up to date

    Some programs you use are critical to the safe use of your computer, and it’s important to keep these patched.

    In this article critical software is the collection of programs (both visible and those that run in the background) that transport information from a web server to your screen. It’s the chain of data flow that you use the most often when using the internet.

    You have your operating system (e.g. Windows, MacOS, Linux), a web browser, and a stack of drivers that basically make the internet work for you. This is a simplified model, most people’s computers will be unique and full of all sorts of programs.

    Because information is flowing along this chain of programs, data being handed off from the operating system to the web browser, every link in the chain is critical. And like the old mantra, the price of security is eternal vigilance. In this case we’re looking at the eternal task of patching your software.

    Patches are released by software vendors, whether it’s a free open source program or from a commercial software company. Patches are written because the programmers are always fixing bugs, in particular they’re always fixing security vulnerabilities as they are discovered. It’s a way of strengthening each of the links in your data chain.

    The point of this article is that you should always update the following:

    • Patch your operating system (Windows, Mac OS, Linux, etc). Yes there’s a risk in being the first to install a patch, it might break something. Large companies have long complicated procedures to test patches before installing them. Small companies and home users need to take the risk and apply the patch blindly, trusting the vendor. It’s a choice between having the most secure computer possible or waiting to see if a patch is released by mistake. My advice is to take the secure option and make regular backups of all your data (backups would be a good topic for a future article). Most operating systems these days have automated patching systems in place making this simple and often a transparent process.
    • Patch your web browser. All web browsers need to be patched – Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), FireFox, Opera, Safari, etc. Apply patches as soon as they’re released. Today a web browser is the most vulnerable program on a computer, it gets used to run code that other people write. Code that comes from all corners of the world and is almost always not certified in any way and there’s almost no way of trusting the code. Your web browser will execute it blindly, trusting that it’s safe and you trust that all other programs on your computer (including the operating system) will handle the attacks in a graceful way. Web browsers will be attacked, this is almost a certainty these days. So you need to very latest version that hopefully has had every known vulnerability fixed.
    • Patch your antivirus software. This is often automatic, and it’s often a paid service. Antivirus companies spend a lot of time and money keeping their tools up to date and it’s in your best interest to use their technology. Consider it a good investment, it could cost you thousands of dollars if your system is compromised.
    • Sometimes routers will have to be patched as well. This is a little more advanced and you should only do it if you’re comfortable working with your router.
    • Personal firewalls should also be patched. If your antivirus software includes a [personal] firewall then it’ll be patched automatically, otherwise it’s a separate process.

    Chain and padlockAll software that uses the internet in any way, including the various video and music players, needs to be kept up to date. Web browsers and operating systems are the most critical and should be patched the most often. The time and effort you spend is the price you pay for having a safe computer.