Plus 3 rules to stay safe online

We use computers all the time, but many of us still know surprisingly little about them. Here are answers to the five questions I’m asked most often as a computer consultant…

I’ve read about Hillary Clinton’s e-mail security problems. Where is my e-mail kept? 

When you send an e-mail, a copy is sent to the e-mail server belonging to your e-mail service provider (Google, Microsoft, etc.). That server maintains a copy of all the e-mails you send or receive until you choose to delete them.

Your service provider also sends a copy to the service provider of the person to whom you sent the e-mail. It waits on that server until that person opens his e-mail program on his computer and receives a copy of your message. A copy of the recipient’s e-mail also remains on his service provider’s server until it is deleted. When any other e-mail program is used on any additional device (laptop, smartphone, tablet) with the same e-mail account, it also receives a copy of the e-mail.

All of this amounts to a minimum of four copies for every e-mail successfully sent and received. One person can never delete all four copies. You do not have access to the recipient’s computer or server and cannot delete those copies. And deleted e-mails can sometimes be retrieved.

Should I delete “cookies”? 

As you navigate among websites, your Internet browser (Internet Explorer, Safari, Google Chrome, Firefox, etc.) will receive very small files that collect browsing data. These are cookies. They usually don’t contain personally identifiable data, such as your name, but they can contain information about your browsing session at a particular website, storing information about which articles you read, what items you browsed for on a shopping website and which ads you have clicked on. A cookie also may save your geographic location and even the name of your Internet service provider and what model computer you are using. It is safe to assume that all major commercial websites are using cookies.

As to whether you should get rid of cookies or not, many websites either prohibit or limit your visiting if cookies are blocked, so you can’t really get very far without them. Some people prefer to frequently delete their cookies. Since a cookie will automatically be created again when you visit a website, this is not a permanent solution.

There are two types of cookies that your browser identifies—cookies from the website you are visiting…and third-party cookies. Third-party cookies usually are advertiser-related and often are shared among websites that use a common Internet advertising service. Most third-party cookies can be blocked with an Internet browser setting. Doing so does not in any way restrict your ability to surf the web.

To block third-party cookies, find your browser’s settings for “Privacy” that let you control how cookies are controlled. On Windows computers, look in your Internet browser (Internet Explorer, Safari, Google Chrome, Firefox, etc.) for a menu item called “Options” or “Internet Options.” On a Mac, look in your Internet browser for a menu item labeled “Preferences.”

What do I need to do to be safe while downloading programs from the ­Internet? 

Here are three excellent rules from Brian Krebs, a former reporter for The Washington Post who writes a blog called Krebs on Security that focuses on computer security…

If you didn’t go looking for it, don’t install it! This minimizes the danger of a malicious program taking over functions in your computer. Of course, sometimes even a program you have actually requested will include an additional “payload” containing an additional program that you did not request. Sometimes, when you choose to download a new program, you are notified about the additional program so that you may “opt out.”

If you installed it, update it. Any program that you obtain, even free ones, may have problems that get fixed later with a subsequent update. Updates are necessary to keep your programs and computer functioning properly. (Also see the next question.)

If you no longer need it, remove it. Unused programs have been proven to slow down computers and create conflicts with other software. Even if you downloaded a program just to try it but haven’t used it since, you should think about removing it.

I keep getting pop-up messages about specific updates. Should I follow the prompts and do the updates? 

Usually, yes. The majority of the software we use requires maintenance and updating. Despite testing, some problems are not discovered until hundreds of thousands of people already are using them. (That’s one reason some people are wary about getting brand-new software when it’s first released.)

Software companies provide free updates because it’s one way to significantly reduce problems and improve the user experience. Often updates are created to provide enhanced protection against known security vulnerabilities. Even though your own experience may be fine, it still is recommended to receive and install updates.

Expect regular updates not only for your operating system but also for specific software products such as Java, Adobe Flash and Adobe Reader. These popular, free programs are frequent targets of criminals and must be updated to be safe.

Sometimes you may encounter fraudulent messages about updates. If you are unsure about any particular update request, it is best to ignore it rather than granting it permission to be installed. Sometimes you can tell if it’s fraudulent from spelling or grammar errors, inaccurate program or company names, or even incorrect logos or other graphics. If you’re still unsure, you can go to the company’s website to see if the version you have is still current.

What are the questions I should ask a support technician before letting that person perform any work on my computer? 

Since I believe that “first do no harm” should apply when solving any computer problem, it is important that you ask these four questions—in the described sequence—before you let anyone take action on your computer…

Question 1: Would you restate my problem? It is very important that the technician has thoroughly assessed both the symptom of your problem and your specific environment (including specific computer model and software versions). For example, a fix that might be good for Windows 10 may cause harm when used on Windows 7.

Question 2: What action do you plan to take? The techie should be able to clearly and competently describe his intentions before proceeding. You may need to ask for a more understandable, jargon-free explanation.

Question 3: Is your proposed fix designed to address my specific problem? This minimizes the prospect of a hasty selection from a limited number of known fixes. There even is a possibility that the symptoms of your problem are unique and require the assistance of a more skilled technician.

Question 4: Have you ever done this before? While it may not completely disqualify your technician, it is not ideal to let him practice on your system.

If you stick to these questions, the answers should give you a good feel for the technician’s ability to get the job done…or not.

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