After years of the mantra being repeated over and over, most people know not to open e-mail attachments from people they don’t know. Slowly but surely, people are beginning to realize it’s also not safe to open strange, unusual, or unexpected attachments from people they do know either because e-mail addresses are so easily spoofed and e-mail accounts are more and more frequently hacked into. However, I would like to remind folks of the new battleground. Virus writers are getting their software into your computer when you browse seemingly safe web sites. That’s right, no downloading or prompting by you is necessary (although sometimes you do get prompted and just click “OK” because that’s what you’re used to doing).
Now, I’m not going to get into the technical hows or the even the whys of these viruses. My focus is on ways to help reduce your risk. First of all, you want to make certain that you keep whatever anti-virus program you have up to date. Most of them are pretty good at updating themselves and becoming very annoying when they get out of date. Don’t ignore these warnings. Updated anti-virus software is very important these days. I often hear people say “I don’t have any viruses, my computer works just fine and I don’t have any anti-virus software at all!” The truth is, most viruses won’t break your computer, that’s not their goal. So really, there’s no way to know if you’re infected without good anti-virus software.
However, anti-virus software only works by detecting a virus that’s already on your system. It’s better if it can’t get on your computer in the first place. To that end, it’s important to keep your web browser software and all of it’s plug-ins updated properly. I found a great site that does this for free and even provides excellent links to help you update anything that has known security flaws. The website is https://browsercheck.qualys.com/. I strongly encourage you to go to this site and get any recommended updates.
One of the ways viruses slip into systems is through advertisements. The bad guys have on several occasions managed to get their wares delivered through advertising company servers. One way to block this is by using the Adblock Plus plug-in for the Mozilla Firefox web browser. This wonderful plug-in blocks a large number of advertisements and if you take some time to learn how to use it you can teach it how to block advertisements it doesn’t already know about. Not only does this increase your web browsing safety, but it tends to speed up the loading of web sites and you don’t have to watch annoying animations scrolling across your screen anymore.
Speaking of animations… Some of the more annoying advertisements and all dangerous viruses that spread through your web browser require your computer to run something called “scripts” on your computer. These are effectively little programs that can do things on your computer. They can make some of your favorite sites (like Facebook) work properly and let you do things such as chatting and your Farmville. However, you can choose to install a plug-in called NoScript for Firefox which will stop all scripts on a web site from running unless you specifically allow them. Admittedly, this feature is not for the feint of heart as you will need to manually allow scripts that you need for your favorite sites to work. However, over time, as you train NoScript, you will have to do less with it and it will protect you from many unexpected problems. And again, it will greatly speed up the load time of web sites.
The real trick about viruses being spread by visiting a web site is that we have become accustomed to web sites being able to do very cool things. Unfortunately, that has required them to have far too much control over our computers. For instance, there is a web browser technology called ActiveX that was designed by Microsoft. It allows web designers to do some very cool things. Unfortunately, there is no way to keep your computer safe from malicious ActiveX software. You can read more about the dangers of the technology on Microsoft’s own website. Also, you won’t find ActiveX in other browsers (like Firefox) partly because it’s too insecure.
I hope this short article has been somewhat helpful. Admittedly it is not extensive and I have not gone into comparing all of the major browsers such as Opera, Google Chrome, Safari, etc. However, each browser has it’s features and limitations and the Qualys web site can check the security of each of your browsers. Internet Explorer is the only browser that I’ve found to have effectively no advertisement or script blocking capabilities and it is, in general, the least secure of all browsers.