Computer Health and Safety

Advice on how to protect your computer and the work on it.

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You’ve been slaving away on your magnum opus for weeks, months, maybe even years, working on a computer, then suddenly you get a power cut. There’s a notification saying the program closed unexpectedly. The file has been corrupted. The blue screen of death appears. It’s gone.

For the most part, we take our PCs, laptops, and Macs for granted. We assume they work and will continue to work. Of course, that’s not true, and it’s only when disaster strikes that we curse ourselves. Nothing is worse—not even a papercut.

As in many areas of life, prevention is better than cure. Here are five simple strategies that will either mitigate the threat completely, or at the very least reduce their impact.

1. Apply updates

All recent PCs and Apple computers have the option of turning operating system updates on or off. Turning them on means that your machine is patched very quickly once any vulnerability is discovered. By doing this you reduce the risk of a threat being able to damage your computer. Think of it as plugging the holes in your defensive walls before the enemy attacks.

Modern software, such as Microsoft Office 365, also updates regularly. These are not just silly timewasting interruptions—they could mean the difference between losing or saving your work.

You may wish to set your machine so it simply notifies you when it is ready to update so you can make the decision when to go ahead and keep control of the timing of the update, making sure all programs are properly closed and you have a backup before the install begins. This is my preferred solution, particularly when I know a major update is on the way. I have had issues in the past where programs have failed to shut down properly, corrupting work-in-progress files.

Keeping control of timing means you can also wait and see if the wider community reports any negative impacts from the update. For example, when Apple Macs updated to the 64-bit Catalina operating system a few months ago, all 32-bit programmes stopped working on it, potentially costing some people a lot of money in replacement programs. Balancing a few days of exposure against whether any reported issues will be fixed in a quick patch may be sensible.

In simple terms, though: apply updates when your computer asks you to. It’s like changing the tyres on your car when they wear down—if you don’t do it, you’re increasing your own risk.

2. Get protected

The concept of antivirus software is familiar to most people. Generally it is a little program that runs in the background, checking all your existing files and operating system to make sure they remain clean from viruses, malware, and other nasty things. Often the program also checks every file downloaded, imported, opened, or run on the machine, as well as every email received and often every website visited to ensure your computer stays healthy. The idea is the program blocks you from running compromised code.

Advice varies on whether you need more protection than the built-in offerings from Windows and Apple. Personally, I play safe and install an aftermarket program. In over thirty years of computing, I cannot recall more than three or four occasions when my antivirus has picked up an issue (and never on a Mac). However, if only one had got through it could have wrecked my computer, my files, and my entire work environment and history. It would be a total disaster.

Firewalls serve a slightly different purpose. They prevent probing and intrusion from remote hostile servers that are constantly looking to compromise your computer. A firewall effectively burns anything not allowed to come through—your computer enters a kind of stealth mode where other machines are unable to address it, and in some cases, even see it. Think of it as a literal wall of fire around your computer, where only traffic that is checked and approved has access.

These days, built-in software firewalls are pretty good and suitable for most non-commercial uses. If you don’t intend to buy an antivirus package with a commercial firewall included, Windows Defender and Apple Firewall are adequate, particularly if your machine sits behind a router at home with a built-in hardware firewall. If you ever use your laptop on a free wifi hotspot in an airport or coffee shop, please be aware these are very insecure and it is vital you have a software firewall turned on.

Having a firewall doesn’t protect the data you deliberately send out from your computer, so you might also want to consider Virtual Private Network (VPN) software to create a completely encrypted pipeline between you and the websites you visit. This is particularly important if you are, for example, using a credit card online, or you deal with sensitive personal data.

The next level of security is a commercial antivirus package. These often include a more regular updates and feature heuristic searching (able to spot something that looks like a virus, but hasn’t yet been identified as such), privacy software (stops you putting your credit card details where you shouldn’t), password generator and vault (so you can have unique and complex passwords for every site you visit), a professional level of firewall (often difficult to use beyond the basic settings, but tuneable should you wish), and a VPN. Some come with a backup suite with a quantity of offsite storage.

These used to be expensive, but you can now get package deals where multiple machines can be secured for around £25 a year, and there are also limited functionality packages that are free (until you need more features).

3. Avoid social engineering

One thing that is sure to compromise your PC is if you allow a stranger to use it. No level of security software will stop this if you give the enemy permission to breach your defences by allowing them remote access, where they log onto your computer from afar.

It’s quite common to get a call from someone claiming to be from a legitimate company, who says that your PC or router has been compromised. In the case of someone pretending to be a support engineer, they can sound very credible if you are or have been a customer of the company they claim to represent. They may even know your account details, or at least enough of them to sound genuine.

No broadband supplier calls individual customers in this way. If you get such a call, take a note of the number, put the phone down immediately, and call your service provider’s customer support directly. You can find this number online or in the pack you received when you signed up.

The focus of these con artists is to convince you to allow them to install and run remote desktop software that allows them to control your PC. From here, they can raid all your passwords and access your emails, you back accounts, and take over your digital life. They cannot do this without your assistance, though, so on no account should you follow their instructions. It’s like giving them the keys your house, handing over your wallet, and writing down your PIN numbers for them, then telling them you’re going off to get a coffee for half an hour.

4. Keep multiple copies

The simplest way to minimise lost work caused by a power cut, blue screen, or other computer hazard is to use version control. Better still, it’s free. Version control means you need never lose more than a day’s work unless you have a complete hard drive disaster.

My preferred strategy is this: I save the file I’m working on every day, with a new name. These use the date at the front of the filename so I can find and recognise the latest version quickly (in my file structure, they are automatically listed in chronological order). Sometimes I save a version halfway through the day and give the filename a further tweak. This is good for all file types.

This method also has the added advantage of letting me easily assess my progress every day.

5. Back everything up

Everyone probably knows they should keep a backup, but few people actually do. I suspect the people who do have suffered a catastrophe. So, what can you do?

There are installed system recovery options on Windows and Macs, but they restore everything, not just an individual file. They are worth using—Recovery on Windows and Time Machine on Mac—in case the worst happens, but you should also use an offsite backup that you can control.

The most important thing about a backup is to check that it works. It’s no good setting it up and then three years later finding your backup can’t be retrieved, or the backup drive is corrupted. My strong advice is therefore to occasionally check on your backup, maybe every three months. Can you actually see new files in it, and can you retrieve them if you need to?

For a good offsite backup there are many free online options like Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive. You can install sync programs from these and then instruct them to backup specific folders, so every time you save your work it will be backed up as long as you are connected to the internet. Cloud storage like this is the ideal way to store your backup. If disaster happens and you have a fire or a flood where you keep your PC, if your backup is next to it the chances are it will also end up being trashed.

If you do also want a local backup, you can use USB flash drives, external hard drives, or Network Attached Storage (NAS). From within your working folder simply highlight and copy your most precious files and paste them (don’t move them) onto your remote drive. That way, you always have an extra copy. Ideally you need to do this once a day so as not to lose too much work if your computer encounters a problem and you cannot access your online backup.

 

I hope this article has got you to think about one aspect of the practicality of writing and might encourage you to think a little about your computer’s wellbeing. It can be heart-breaking to lose your precious files, but you can salvage something from a bad situation if you are prepared. You can’t do it retrospectively!

Lee quit the corporate world to write spec-fic and horror. He was twice shortlisted and published by the HG Wells Short Story Competition.

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