Monday, July 29, 2013

Destroying Everything You Hold Dear With CCleaner

Well, not necessarily.  CCleaner is a hard drive cleaning utility, which basically means it gets rid of unnecessary files on your computer.  Now, it can be kind of aggressive, which is why you should read up on how to use it and be very careful when adjusting the settings of the program.  I'll try to give you a good idea of what to do here, though please feel free to research it on other sites as well.

CCleaner is brought to you by the company Piriform, and can be downloaded here.  (Yes, there's a free and paid-for version.  If you hit the "Download" button you'll get the free version, which I use and am perfectly happy with.) 

The most recent version (as of writing) was released on July 25, 2013.  My version is a little dated, so the screenshots I take might look a bit different from the version you have on your system.  After you download and install CCleaner, create a desktop shortcut, and open the program, you should get a window that looks somewhat like this:



Look all the way to the left.  You see the tabs "Cleaner", "Registry", "Tools", and "Options".  "Cleaner" is the one CCleaner automatically opens up in, and it's the most important one.

In the middle, you see two tabs of checklists.  These are the settings for what you want to clean off your computer.  It's very important that you determine these settings carefully, since you're deciding what's going to be PERMANENTLY deleted from your computer. 

(While we're on the subject: I assume no liability for any damage that is done as a result of using this program incorrectly or carelessly.  In addition, what you see in these checklists are my own personal settings that ONLY I USE.  They are not intended to serve as guidelines for what you should do.  Only you can make that decision.)

The "Windows" tab is, obviously, for Windows applications and applies to Windows users only.  "Internet Explorer" is all about temporary Internet files and cookies.  "Windows Explorer" deals with stuff like recently opened files and recent searches (and, if you use the "Run" bar, the files that store the names of the most recent programs you've run).  Under "System", you have files relating to your clipboard (which stores the stuff you "copy and paste"), the Recycle Bin, and temporary files that help certain programs open faster.

Now, I want you to take a close look at this.



Look under "Advanced".  All sorts of bizarre things to make beginners' heads spin.  I strongly recommend that you do NOT mess with this section until you've familiarized yourself with everything in that checklist.  In fact, some choices in this section will give you a warning message if you select them.  It's not that it's stuff only fit for IT geniuses of the highest training; it's just a bit more complicated and it would be easy for someone who is new to CCleaner to delete something that they don't want deleted.

There's another tab, too—"Applications".  It's basically more of the same, more checklists asking you what you want to get rid of.  Just be careful when making your decisions.

Once you have the settings to your liking, hit "Analyze".  This may take a while, depending on how much "junk data" you have on you computer.



You can review what is set to be deleted one last time.  Double-clicking anything in this list will give you another list of every single file that is marked for deletion.  If you don't want a file deleted, right-click and select "Add to Exclude List".

Once you're happy with your "delete list", hit "Run Cleaner".  CCleaner will ask you if you're sure, and if you click "Yes", it'll begin cleaning.  Again, if you have a lot of unnecessary files, it might take a few minutes.



That's the main part of the cleaner.  There's also a Registry cleaner, which runs in a very similar way.  I would be more careful with the Registry cleaner because Registry keys are more likely to be critical to your system.  In other words, you're more likely to accidentally delete something important here than you are with the regular cleaner.  However, getting rid of certain keys can also help your computer to run more efficiently, so I'll cover it anyway.

First off, hit the "Registry" tab, and you'll get something that looks like this.



Notice how I have everything checked.  You probably don't understand what most—if any—of this is, and that's okay.  If you would feel better doing your research before messing with this part of the Cleaner, or not using it at all, then that's totally fine.  However, if you're feeling gutsy, go ahead and check what you want in the list and hit "Scan for Issues".

If there are no out-of-place registry keys, it'll say "No issues were found".  (That's what happened with me just now, and it's why you won't be getting any more screenshots.)  If it finds some keys worth cleaning out, it will list them.  Once again, you can choose to delete certain keys and add others to the "Exclude" list.

Once you have your list of keys to delete, hit "Fix Selected Issues".  You will be asked if you want to back up changes to the Registry.  Answer "yes".  Save the file, and then proceed with the cleaning.  You can fix each issue individually or fix them all at once; the options are pretty intuitive here.

After cleaning out the Registry, wait after you use your computer a few times to make sure everything's working properly, and then you can delete your backup file.  Be sure that you know where the file was placed when you saved it.  (Mine always saves in Documents.)


And that's really it for the basics of CCleaner.  Obviously, there's much, much more to the program.  However, this is what you need to know to keep your computer clean.  I like to run CCleaner once or twice a week; you decide what's best for you.  And, as always, the most important thing you can do is be careful, giving strong consideration to any settings you put in place.  If you do that, then using CCleaner should be no problem.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Cookies and Your Privacy

The recent controversy surrounding the NSA has brought to light many of the unsolved issues concerning the Internet, privacy, and homeland security.  However, while the idea that the federal government might be spying on us on our computers might sound a bit 1985-ish, not only is it plausible, but it actually should be expected.

I'm not going to get into a discussion about what the NSA has or hasn't done and whether it's right or wrong, because this blog is about security, not moral and political debate.  However, I will tell you that the Internet is a lot of things, but "private" is not one of them.  Big Brother has probably had access to your Internet information for a long time—and they're not the only ones.

Cookies

I want you to think of a rather peculiar word for this topic of conversation: "cookie".  Yes, this is a technological term, and it refers to something far different on the Internet than in the bakery.  An Internet cookie is a file that keeps record of certain information relating to your activity on the Internet.

Again, sounds like something straight out of a George Orwell novel.  However, before you begin freaking out, know that cookies aren't always bad.  In fact, they were originally developed to make the use of the Internet more convenient for you.  For example, cookies are the reason the computer can "hold" items in your shopping cart when you're shopping online.  They're also the reason your computer "remembers" your passwords so you don't have to log into your online accounts every time you visit.  Some cookies also help certain web pages to load faster, and they're responsible for keeping track of your browsing history so you can easily access pages you visited a few hours, days, or even weeks ago.

However, the use of cookies has its drawbacks.  First and foremost, while some cookies are coded to delete themselves after a certain period of time, many remain on your hard drive long after they've been used.  And when new ones are created on your computer, rather than replacing the old ones, they only add to them.  Over time, cookies can take up a ton of space on your hard disk.  (For the technologically-minded: on some especially messy computers, "a ton" can be in the gigabytes.  No kidding.)

In addition to clogging up your disk, cookies also store information relating to you, your computer, and what you do on the Internet.  Some websites use cookies to track your Internet activity (hence their alternate name, tracking cookies).  They do this primarily so that they can show you relevant advertisements based on your most-visited websites, Google searches, etc.  But it's still kind of creepy.

And finally, it's not uncommon for hackers to either steal cookies to gain information or write their own tracking cookies to gather and report back information to them.  Tracking cookies, for the kind of information they might obtain, may or may not be picked up by your antimalware, depending on the product you have.  However, there are still ways you can get rid of cookies and other programs that are so nervy to take up space on your disk while tracking your information.

1) Delete Your Browsing History/Modify Settings

This article from eHow gives instructions on how to delete your browsing history on the three most commonly-used browsers: Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Google Chrome.  (Note: on Internet Explorer, the "Ctrl-Shift-Del" hotkey works.  In addition, to prevent certain websites from storing cookies in the future, uncheck the top box that says "Preserve Favorites Website Data".)

The process of clearing out your browser might take a while, depending on how many cookies you currently have on your computer.  It would be wise to get into the habit of clearing your history every time you exit your browser, or you could configure your browser to do the same thing by going into your Internet settings (which can usually be found under "Tools", "Options", etc.).

2) Use a hard-drive cleaning utility

Unfortunately, clearing your history doesn't get rid of all the cookies on your computer, and it doesn't prevent all websites from creating cookies in the future.  Your operating system probably includes a hard drive cleaning tool that might get rid of certain temporary files and cookies, but I personally feel CCleaner does a better job.  However, CCleaner can be kind of aggressive, and you really should know what you're doing when you use it.  I'll be covering CCleaner in a future entry, but for now stay away from third-party cleaning programs.


That's all for now.  The next entry will probably be about CCleaner.  Again, if you have any questions or requests for future topics, PLEASE LET ME KNOW.  My email address is ladypakenham(@)gmail.com.  I have not gotten any requests yet, which is fine considering I just started this.  However, ultimately this blog will only be able to survive through user participation; otherwise I'm just rambling to myself (and I already do plenty of that on my other blog).  :-)

Monday, July 8, 2013

Who Does BYOD Really Benefit?

BYOD may or may not be a foreign term to you, though it's actually been in use for quite a few years now.  It's becoming more and more common in the workplace as more people begin using smartphones and other mobile devices.  However, like anything else, it has its disadvantages—especially in the realm of security.

BYOD stands for "bring your own device", and is a policy allowing employees to bring their own personal technological devices (like laptops, smartphones, and tablets) to work and use them on the job.  Again, people have been doing this for a few years now, though primarily with laptops.  However, as smaller mobile devices like smartphones and tablets become more popular, you're going to start seeing BYOD in a whole new light as your co-workers begin using these devices regularly at work.

BYOD, in some forms, reaches beyond the workplace.  For example, I see another form of it quite commonly at my community college, where my fellow students always have their devices with them and always seem to be doing something on them, be it related to school or not.  (Sometimes I look over at the people sitting next to me in class and I see that they're actually on Facebook, or studying material for a different class.  But it's not for me to judge.)

"Benefits" of a Young Policy

Honestly, the benefits of adopting this policy are reserved mostly for employers.  By allowing (or requiring) employees to use their own tech devices for work, companies are opting out of the heavy expenses of supplying and maintaining such devices.  In most cases, BYOD places all the financial responsibility of the device on you, because it is supposedly "your" device.

There is one clear benefit to using "your" device at work—you know it well.  You know how to work your own phone, laptop, or tablet.  You know how everything is organized.  You have the power to arm your devices with your own privacy settings, antivirus, etc.

However, there are serious pitfalls too.  The most obvious disadvantage is that you are making the line separating YOUR property and your EMPLOYER'S property very fuzzy.

Yes, it's "your" device, and you're still responsible for its upkeep.  However, you might be storing and working with company data.  You might be accessing private company networks, and you're using your device on company time.  What exactly you do with your phone, laptop, tablet, etc. and when you do it become critical issues.  Who has rights to what data?  Can your employer demand to see whatever he/she wants on your device, or dictate you on how to use it in your off-time?

It's difficult to give a definite answer, since the device is now being used for personal and work-related purposes at the same time.  Many of the legal issues surrounding BYOD have yet to be resolved simply because it is in its infancy.

Hacking

And, in case ownership issues weren't enough, you can always throw in the threat of someone trying to break into devices to steal your data or the company's data.  Hackers don't always have a set, known target ahead of time, but imagine how much easier you're making their job for them by connecting your personal device to private data belonging to your employer.  Any weaknesses in security either in your own device or in company data (some companies secure their networks well, some don't) could be easily exploited, and the technological connection that BYOD has made between you and your employer just adds to the spoils of anybody who manages to break into your system.

The Ultimate Conclusion

BYOD is a difficult thing to avoid for any student or employee.  However, it's critical to understand that, regardless of any benefits and risks that can be assessed, the fact of the matter is that BYOD is a young, still-developing policy that has yet to take true shape.  Many legal and security standards have yet to be set, meaning that your ownership of your own device and the security of anyone—employer or employee—who participates in BYOD are for the most part up in the air.  BYOD is a grand technological experiment, and in the end, if it's possible to keep your personal and work-related data separate, please do so.  There's simply too much that could go wrong by allowing such an odd connection to be made.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Malware Trilogy: Trojan Horses

Finally, we have arrived at the end of The Malware Trilogy.  Today, we're going to be talking about a type of malware that really stands out—and is by far the most commonly-seen today.

The Trojan Horse

Trojan Horses, or "Trojans" for short, are perhaps some of the strangest bugs that lurk about cyberspace—and also some of the most frightening.  Unlike viruses and worms, Trojans NEITHER self-replicate NOR infect files.  They are literally rogue standalone files, just like any other program on your computer, except they're written to do bad stuff.

So you can already tell that there's an obvious disadvantage to using Trojans: they don't spread all that much.  They can't make more of themselves, after all, and they don't copy their own code into other files.  So why use them?

Well, think about the major disadvantages of using viruses or worms: viruses require a great deal of human intervention, and are not very stealthy.  And while worms do spread more freely and more discreetly, any program that makes copies upon copies of itself and runs around computer networks is going to be discovered eventually.  In addition, neither viruses nor worms are good for targeted, contained attacks.

Why would hackers want to carry out targeted, contained attacks anyway?  Are we talking digital espionage?

Well, not necessarily.  A hacker might also be interested in stealing passwords, copying credit card numbers, or attempting identity theft (which is all extremely serious stuff, but not quite as dramatic as digital espionage.)  In this case, the hacker would be perfectly content with sending a "spy" program out to infect whoever was so unlucky to chance upon it first.  The hacker really doesn't know anything about the victim (yet), and doesn't really care who is infected.  The hacker just wants a single, random person to scam.

Having said that, Trojans can also be used for targeted attacks, such as those commonly seen in cyber-terrorism.  The Shamoon Trojan is actually an excellent example of that, though it's far more destructive than what you normally see in today's malware (by the way: notice how the changing motives of hackers are mentioned in the article).

Trojans are, basically, extremely stealthy "spy" programs.  Think about it: if you are infected by a Trojan, you're only going to have one copy of that Trojan on your machine, which severely decreases your antivirus's chance of finding it.  In addition, there aren't even any infected files to tip you or your antivirus off.  Trojans are exactly what hackers want for clandestine operations.

However, this isn't their most frightening trait.  Rather, it is the very meaning behind their name that makes them a serious enemy.

How do "Trojans" Work?

A common definition for Trojans is: "They're programs that pretend to be harmless, but aren't."  Well, that's not entirely false, but it's over-simplified.  Yes, a Trojan can tell you it's a harmless program, and it may even behave like one.  For example, a Trojan claiming to be an antivirus program may very well detect and remove certain pieces of malware.  However, this isn't exactly a good explanation to give to people who aren't familiar with malware, because nowadays, deception isn't exactly uncommon in the realm of cybercrime.  Most pieces of malware either download themselves silently on your computer or they have to lie to get you to download them yourself.

This definition also lacks a good explanation of the name.  The idea behind Trojans is far more complicated than simple deception, and it does indeed invoke images of the Greeks offering up the Trojan Horse.

Here's a hypothetical for you: let's say you got a lovely suspicious email from a friend, and it contained an attachment that claimed, "Oh no, don't worry about me.  I'm a PDF, really!".  If your "friend" was trying to infect you with a worm, that attachment would not be a PDF, but an actual worm.  If your friend was trying to give you a virus, the "PDF" might be an actual virus or it might be a PDF infected by a virus.

However, if your friend felt like you deserved a nice, state-of-the-art Trojan Horse, that PDF would be...a PDF.  A plain-old, non-infected PDF.  Maybe even one you were expecting anyway.

This is where it gets creepy.  Listen to me very closely: Trojans are the most common pieces of malware in cyberspace.  It's good to know about all three main categories, but Trojans are the most important because a) regardless of whether you use a desktop, tablet, smartphone, Windows, Apple OSX, Linux, etc. you're probably going to be infected by something at some point in your computing life and b) it's most likely going to be a Trojan.  It is crucial that you understand how Trojans work so that you can catch the inevitable infection early on, and hopefully prevent many more.

That hypothetical PDF you just got may be a perfectly normal PDF.  But it's got a dirty secret: it has a Trojan hiding inside.

Yes.  You heard me: Trojans can "hide" inside legitimate files the way the Greeks hid inside the Trojan Horse in The Iliad.  Even if you just open the PDF, the Trojan will automatically install itself.  You'll be given no warning, no sign...it'll all be done silently.

And don't think this is limited to files, either.  Trojans can also "hide" inside perfectly legitimate websites.  Some websites are more shady (and more vulnerable) than others, but just today I was visiting the website of an old village and local tourist spot I wanted to go visit, and my antivirus blocked a Trojan trying to automatically download itself.

This is what makes Trojans scary: not only can they hide well on your computer, but they hide well everywhere—in other files, on the Internet, in perfectly safe places that you would never suspect could be vulnerable to infection.  And there isn't much you can do about it.  The only way to protect yourself from Trojans is to KEEP YOUR ANTIVIRUS UPDATED.  A good, updated antivirus program should be able to catch most Trojans before they even reach your computer.

(In case you were wondering: I use Avast! Free Antivirus.  Usually it's difficult to find really good free software, but I'm more than happy with the job Avast has done.  It might even be over-sensitive in blocking programs trying to download themselves from websites, but I'm okay with that, because it's certainly saved me some grief.)

Recap

The Basics of the Trojan:
  • Neither self-replicates nor infects files
  • "Hides" inside other files the way the Greeks in the Iliad hid inside the Trojan Horse
  • No, not the most technically-accurate name in the world.  However, some might object if we began calling these incredibly dangerous malicious programs "Greeks", so they're Trojans.
Advantages:
  • The most stealthy of the three categories
  • Great for contained attacks, easy to control
  • Difficult to avoid infection
  • Opportunity for a hacker to "hide" a Trojan in a virus or worm (these are called blended threats)
Disadvantages:
  • Can't spread
  • Once user finds and deletes the Trojan, the infection is gone forever (no additional copies)
As I said back in the first chapter of this trilogy, malware has about a gazillion classifications to it.  Still, these are the main three, and chances are I'll be discussing other prominent threats in the future.  Now that you have a better understanding of what you're up against, you'll be more vigilant online and more aware of what happens on your computer.  And while it's almost impossible to go your whole computing life without being infected at least once, hopefully you'll be able to stop these infections early on (or before they even begin!).  Stay safe!  : )