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Staying safe online is about more than buying security

You may not need security software. Or, to be accurate, you may not need to buy extra security software. It’s possible you already have all the defences you need.

If you are computer savvy, sceptical and careful you should be fine. In theory modern operating systems include enough protection for advanced users.

Staying safe means keeping up-to-date with software upgrades. It helps to watch for new risks, so you aren’t blindsided. Most of all, you need to stay alert.

Who needs to buy security software?

If you are not confident or can’t keep your guard up all the time, third-party security software1 helps. It fills the gaps and monitors incoming risks.

You might also consider if you are a high risk. Perhaps you use computers to run a business or handle large sums of money. Maybe you have a high-profile and would be an exciting trophy for a hacker. These are good enough reasons to spend a few dollars a month on extra protection.

Security software helps. It won’t make your computer completely safe. That’s down to you.

Not only you. Other, people might use your computer. You may share a house and a local network with others. You may manage people who use work computers.

In all these cases, you can’t be sure others know or care enough to keep themselves and everyone else safe. More to the point, they can put you at risk.

Path of least resistance

Installing security software is easy. It is less stressful than nagging people who have less incentive to worry about security. And it’s less expensive than dealing with the aftermath of a security lapse.

You need to be careful though. Security software can lure you into a false sense of, well, security.

That’s because the biggest threats aren’t always the things security programs catch. When scammers pretending to work for Microsoft call, software is not going to help.

Criminals know the best way to steal from you is not hacking your computer but hacking your brain. They call this social engineering. It boils down to manipulation. They talk you in to giving them your passwords or otherwise let them past your defences.

Where to start

The first step to being safer is to own a more modern computer with up-to-date software. Older operating systems have more security holes for criminals to exploit. If for no other reason than they’ve had longer to find the holes.2

Most serious attacks involve finding holes, computer security people call them vulnerabilities. In most cases Microsoft, Apple or Linux developers plugged those holes a long time ago.3

Your first and most important security step is to turn on software auto-updates. Microsoft releases fresh security updates for Windows every month. If a serious vulnerability appears between releases it rushes out a patch.

Applications too

Upgrading the operating system is important, but applications can also be vulnerable. Again you need to make sure these are up-to-date. Where possible, turn on auto-updating. If you get notification about an update, install it as soon as you can.

Browsers are the most vulnerable software. They are a route into your computer from outside. The same advice applies. Make sure your browser is up-to-date. Take care with browser plug-ins.

If you can, find a reputable online site to check your browser for vulnerabilities. The results of these tests can be unnerving the first time you run them.

It’s a good idea to uninstall little-used applications if you think you won’t use them soon. Something that hasn’t run in a while could be a ticking time bomb.

Get rid of Java unless it is necessary for an important application. Likewise get rid of programmes like Adobe Flash and Shockwave. They are accidents waiting to happen.

One other important piece of advice. Crime rates are higher down at the grungy end of town. They same applies online. Going near illegal software downloads, serious pornography or anything else shady, increases the chances of nasty software turning up on your computer.

Use built-in security tools

Modern operating systems include security tools. Use them, you’ve already paid for them. If you run Windows then Microsoft Security Essentials or Windows Defender is a good start. Find your operating system’s firewall and make sure that it is turned on.

Online apps often have two-factor authentication as an option. Use it.

Everything mentioned above will be enough for many, but not all, readers. Criminals go for low-hanging fruit. There are enough careless people who are easy meat. Just paying attention to the basics will lift you above the pack.

The next step up involves buying third-party security software. There are plenty of choices. Look for recent reviews to see which might best suit you. Also check for news reports in case one has been compromised.

There’s more you can do depending on how you see the risks and how much time or effort you want to spend on safety. It’s worth using external scanners to monitor your ports. You could explore running your browser with reduced privileges. More extreme protection comes from a technique called sandboxing.


  1. I’m reviewing Norton Security Premium. It’s one of the most popular packages. The review will be online soon. ↩︎
  2. Old computers are not insecure in themselves. The problem is they may not be able to run up to date operating systems. ↩︎
  3. As a rule MacOS and Linux are safer than Windows. Android is usually the least safe, that’s a whole different story. ↩︎

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One thought on “Staying safe online is about more than buying security

  1. If you wrangle a handful of devices and need extra security software1, Norton Security Premium from Symantec will help.
    It protects your computers from malware. Yet that’s only part of the story.
    There are different versions of the software depending on the devices you use and the licences you buy.
    Each version includes identity protection and blocking software to keep your browser away from risky websites.
    After that, the feature list varies.
    When you buy Norton Security Premium you get a sealed licence card. You then download the software as needed from the web. The product key is inside the card.
    There a complex web of what’s in or out for each version and device. To make it easier, I scanned this table from the back of the product card.

    Five, three, one
    The most expensive licence costs NZ$135. It covers five devices in a single household. There’s a NZ$105 three device licence. A $70 version protects a single device.
    Norton Security Premium includes apps for Windows, MacOS, Android and iOS devices. Your devices don’t need to have the same operating system. You can mix and match, say, Windows PCs, Android phones and iPads.
    The Windows protection is the most comprehensive. In comparison the iOS components don’t do much.
    Cloud back-up for Windows devices
    The three and five device licences include 25GB of cloud back-up for one year, but only for Windows devices. The single licence gives you 2GB of Windows cloud back-up.
    If you don’t have a Windows computer, you can’t use the back-up. So, the software is better value for Windows owners than for others.
    Typically you might pay NZ$15 to $20 for 25GB of cloud back-up from other service providers.
    Norton’s cloud back-up isn’t closely tied to the rest of the security software and it is average compared with specialised back-up alternatives. There’s no file sync, which is a disappointment.
    Norton Security Premium default choices
    It comes with a default choice of what gets backed up and when. The software doesn’t back-up video files or mail. You can change these setting to suit your needs. You can also use the back-up software to make local back-ups to, say, a hard drive.
    Norton’s initial back-up runs at a slow pace even if you have a fast internet connection. Later back-ups are speedy.
    Restoring is easy. You can pick individual files or the lot. One nice touch is that you can browse through the back-up as you would through a local drive.
    There’s a password manager in the Windows, Android and iOS editions, but not the MacOS version.
    Software to protect children from unsafe content2 is in the Windows and Android package. MacOS or iOS users don’t get it.
    Antivirus in practice
    It’s hard to judge if antivirus is effective without throwing malware at it in a laboratory. After two months of running the software at home it has yet to spot a live virus or any other malware in everyday use.
    That goes for my MacBook and my HP Spectre. Nothing has turned up. Not a sausage. It did find some malware on an old, archived back-up drive. That was some Windows malware downloaded harmlessly onto a Mac by the Apple mail app. But that was it.
    That’s not to say protection is a waste of time for everyone.
    Slow down
    The problem is that the software slows computers. I benchmarked the Spectre with and without Norton Security Premium installed. The overhead is between three and five percent depending on what’s going on. That’s acceptable if you want to stay safe.
    Norton’s firewall is easy to use, but redundant for most users. It offers extra features compared to, say, Windows Firewall. That can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Still Symantec designed the firewall to need next to no user involvement. Another advantage is that it integrates well with other Norton components.
    SafeWeb browser protection keeps bad websites from loading rubbish on to your computer. It pings often, especially if you go down clickbait rabbit holes.
    Norton Security Premium does a fine job minding the security gaps on your behalf. There are cheaper alternatives but I’ve yet to see one as polished.
    Symantec has experience building security products for non-experts to use. That alone is a reason for everyday users to buy. It also makes Security Premium a good option to put on workplace computers.

    Not everyone does. Read Staying safe online is about more than buying security. ↩︎
    This used to be controversial. Some parents see it as creepy. Others are keen to keep their children away from nastiness. ↩︎

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