Digital Self Defense for Technical Communicators was first published in the Society for Technical Communication‘s Intercom magazine in November 2010. I’ll be reproducing the article in several parts over the next few days.
What do technical communicators need to know about information security? How do they protect both their private information and professional assets, including work they may be doing for a client? How can they leverage and use social media safely and effectively? This article discusses key security measures you as a technical communicator and computer user can take to protect yourself and others, and it offers best practices for safe use of social media. I’ll also provide examples of how we’ve addressed similar user security awareness issues at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).
I’ve been creating end-user communications and developing change management materials for 16 years. I’m currently responsible for policy development and security awareness in the Information Security Office at the Rochester Institute of Technology, one of the largest private universities in the country and home to more than 18,000 faculty, staff, and students. We communicate a number of different techniques for computer users to protect themselves and others. We’ve branded our awareness initiatives as Digital Self Defense. Many of these digital self-defense techniques are useful for technical communicators, too.
Five Ways to Secure Your Computer “Technically”
Keep your computer’s operating system and applications up to date. When was the last time you updated your software? Although Microsoft Windows and Macintosh OS X can be configured to check for and install updates (also known as patches) automatically, you should check to make sure this feature is enabled. Applications are another story. Many of them have auto-update features, but again, they may not be enabled by default. In addition, some applications (Adobe and Firefox, for example) require that you are logged in as an administrator in order to install the updates. (This is less of an issue with Windows 7 because it prompts you to accept updates.) For older operating systems, such as Windows XP, some updates won’t install because you’re using an account with limited privileges (a security best practice).
Install antivirus software and enable automatic updates. Many computers are shipped with free trial versions of antivirus software, such as Norton or McAfee. These trial versions often expire after three months. Many home users choose not to subscribe when the free version expires and use their computer with no antivirus software. Several years ago, an AOL study found that almost 85% of home computers were either not up to date or not running antivirus software.
Macintosh users often do not know that they should be running antivirus software. In my opinion, the Macintosh advertising campaigns have led many Macintosh users into a false sense of security. We see this every fall at RIT when new users arrive. The RIT Information Security Office has investigated incidents involving compromised Macintosh computers several times during the past year. Not only is malware (malicious software) being developed to target Macs, users may also receive Windows malware in their mail and pass it on unknowingly to Windows users.
Several companies offer free versions of their antivirus software for Windows and Macintosh computers. AVG and Avast are two well-known programs. Do not use more than one antivirus program on your computer because they will probably interfere with each other.
Install anti-spyware. Spyware tracks your browsing habits and reports the information to an external party. It’s possible for a computer user to host hundreds or even thousands of spyware programs. Antivirus software may not detect spyware, so it’s necessary to use an anti-spyware program.
There are several free anti-spyware programs available for Windows computers. Spybot Search & Destroy, Microsoft Defender, and Ad-Aware are good examples, but note that recent versions of Ad-Aware include an antivirus component. This will probably conflict with another antivirus program you’re running.
Spyware targeting Macintosh computers is just starting to become a threat; there are few anti-spyware programs designed for Macintosh.
Use a firewall. A firewall prevents unauthorized communication with your computer. It will also help protect you against worms, a type of malware that does not need user interaction to spread. Connecting an unpatched (not up-to-date) computer to the Internet or to a network without a firewall will result in the computer being infected within minutes. The Windows and Macintosh operating systems currently include a firewall. However, they may not be enabled by default. Ensure that a firewall is enabled.
Use an account with limited privileges. If you’re using a computer that has the Windows XP operating system, your day-to-day work should be done using an account with limited privileges. A limited account allows you to run most software programs, use your email, browse the Internet, etc. However, a limited account does not allow you to install software. (To install software, you need an administrative account.) Using a limited account may prevent some malware from installing itself on your computer. Newer Macintosh and Windows 7 computers (and the much maligned Windows Vista) force you to authorize program installations, limiting the ability of malware to install itself on your computer.
- Introducing Technical Writing World, a New Social Network for Technical Writers (idratherbewriting.com)
- Fake “MAC Defender” antivirus app scams users for money, CC numbers (arstechnica.com)
Responses to the #1 topic on IdeaScale, “Consumers dictate device usage, not IT,” indicate that MANY of you believe consumers will drive smartphone adoption in Higher Education, while the sentiment around the topic, “Get rid of the walls around your enterprise data,” indicates that quite a few of you believe that core university data should be accessible to smartphone users.
However, yesterday’s polls have shown that not even all of the attendees of yesterday’s webinar use PINS or swipe patterns on their smartphones. The inherent difficulties in entering a complex password on a smartphone increase the likelihood that users will rely on simple passwords, if any, to access their devices. At the same time, users are expecting access to more and more university resources through their smartphones, increasing the risk of a data breach.
Where does security fit into this picture?
In Thursday’s webinar, “Smartphone Privacy & Security, What Should We Teach Our Users?“, the speaker, Norman Sadeh, indicated that mobile users are three times more likely to fall for phishing attempts. That statistic implies that spear phishing against university communities, which already demonstrates more success than we’re comfortable with, will be even more effective against smartphone users. As we find ourselves more and more hurried, making quick decisions just to handle the ever-increasing stream of information flowing at us, we’re more prone to fall for these attacks.
I would guess that many of us who own smartphones are using them to access our university e-mail, if not other university resources. Most of us don’t have any control over whether someone may e-mail us private or confidential information. If our smartphones become the weakest link in protecting data, they will be targeted.
How many of us have misplaced our smartphones or left them sitting on our desk in an unsecured office? Have you left your smartphone in a taxi or on a shuttle bus?
Increased access to university data is a desirable convenience. Will we be able to get the right combination of security controls, user training, and policies in place to allow smartphone access without it leading to a security breach resulting in a notification event or embarrassment to the university? What kinds of security controls are you using to prevent this? What security apps do you recommend to your users?
Lots of troublesome questions. Where are the answers?
Co-chair, Awareness and Training Working Group
EDUCAUSE/Internet2 Higher Education Information Security Council
Policy and Awareness Analyst
Rochester Institute of Technology
Become a fan of RIT Information Security at http://rit.facebook.com/profile.php?id=6017464645
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This blog entry is part of the EDUCAUSE Mobile Computing Sprint and is cross-posted at http://www.educause.edu/blog/bwoelk/SecureMobileanOxymoron/227983
Today, I had the privilege of being interviewed by our local about the challenges presented by placing private information on portable devices. A surgeon at the cable news had lost a Medical Centerflash drive containing the medical details of around 800 of his patients. The reporter, Anne Lithiluxa, asked me how loss of data could be prevented.
Generally, if you’re going to place private information on a portable device, either the device or the information needs to be encrypted The likelihood of exposure of private information through the loss of portable devices has increased tremendously lately due to the proliferation of smartphones and their use in accessing corporate email accounts. Good information security practice is always a combination of safe handling practices and technical protections.
However, the bottom line is that people are always the weakest link. Technical protections can always be defeated by poor practices.
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