Here are my top tech New Year's resolutions for happy computing during 2011.
As always, feel free to add your own tips and trick in the TalkBack section.
- Keep your software updated! Given the number of serious vulnerabilities uncovered in popular software weekly, and combine that with the fact that hackers are hammering at these vulnerabilities mercilessly, it's vitally important to keep your software updated.Keeping your OS updated is quite easy - Windows, Mac and Linux all feature automatic update mechanisms that do the heavy lifting for you - you just need to check periodically to make sure that everything is working as it should be. Software and drivers are a different matter. While there are update mechanisms built into a lot of the most commonly used software, you can't rely on it, and when you can rely on it, you can't rely on it to always deliver the updates to your system in a timely manner. To take the headache and sweat out of keeping software updated on Windows systems I like to use Secunia's PSI scanner which can detect vulnerable and outdated software installed on your system, tell you what's wrong with it, and best of all offer you a download to fix the problem. Whatever you do during 2011, make sure you keep your software updated. It's the single most important thing you can do to keep your system safe from hackers.
- Back up your data! Telling people to back up their data feels like a really obvious, remedial statement to make, and many times I feel that it's far too basic a message for readers of this blog. But then I look at my inbox and see all the messages from readers wanting tips on recovering data from dead drives and devices, and I realize that the message to back up important data is still an important one. So back up your data! And by "back up" I mean "make a copy onto a separate device" not "copy my data to a different partition/hard drive." Invest in an external hard drive, NAS box or cloud storage. If your data is really valuable, have multiple backups, both on-site and off-site. Back up regularly and thoroughly, so that you can quickly and easily recover from small problems such as user-errors (deleting a file) and big problems (system death or fire/theft).
- Change your important passwords! Again, telling people to change their important passwords on a regular basis seems remedial, but experience and feedback from readers tells me that it's a valid message. I also feel compelled to add the "don't reuse passwords" message too. Change your important passwords regularly (few times a year) and never reuse the same password for multiple accounts! In my experience the reason that people don't manage their passwords well comes down to one thing - not having decent password management software installed. And there really isn't any excuse for not having good password management software. If you're a Windows only person, I recommend the excellent PasswordSafe application (free product). If you want something that works cross platform then I recommend SplashID which has versions of its password manager for a variety of platforms (commercial product). Manage your passwords!
- Clean the cobwebs out of your systems! One of the main causes of system failures is overheating, and one of the major causes of overheating is dust and detritus build-up on components and, critically, on fans. So open up your system periodically and use a can of compressed air to blow your system clean (this can be a messy job so you might want to do it outside). DON'T use a vacuum cleaner on your system because it can cause static charge to build up to crazy level,s and a discharge can easily kill a vital (and usually expensive) component.
- Encrypt important data No matter whether you are pro or against the Wikileaks leaking of the embassy cables, the ease with which massive amounts of confidential data was liberated from government computers should serve as warning to us all that data needs to be protected. Businesses and enterprise users should consider employing endpoint security, but for the rest of us this isn't really feasible (although these are steps you can take to help protect your data). The best way for individuals and small businesses to protect data is through the use of encryption, and one of the best tools to do this is Truecrypt. This is a free, open source, disk encryption tool that works on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. You can used Truecrypt not only to protect your computers, but also to protect removable storage devices - so if you lose a USB flash drive, you're down the device, and not the data too.