5 steps to secure a new PC

Just unwrapped a brand-new PC? Security pros share their secrets for making your system Internet-safe.

A common misconception is that a shiny new computer is more or less secure because it hasn't yet been exposed to the Internet's sinister underbelly. But the truth is, these machines come out of the box needing scores of patches, some basic security software downloads and the disabling or replacing of items security pros don't typically trust.

Step 1: Uninstall Stuff You Don't NeedA new PC is bound to come out of the box already fitted with items the security pro doesn't care for. Certain media players may cause heartburn, for example. Or the machine could simply include programs that, from the security practitioner's point of view, makes other, more important applications perform more slowly than they otherwise would. PC manufacturers have become notorious for installing trial software versions and other unnecessary programs (commonly known as 'craplets' or 'bloatware').

Martin Fisher, manager of the Computer Security Incident Response Team (CSIRT) at Delta Airlines in Atlanta, says software removal is his first task when unwrapping a new system. The simple reason is he prefers the machine to be as bare-bones as possible, only fitted with programs the user needs to do the job. Simple is also easier to secure.

He removes any vendor-provided remote help, AOL and other preloads he will never use (including whatever Adobe products came pre-loaded and all MS Office - which he will replace with OpenOffice and Mozilla Thunderbird). The goal is to strip the machine to the bare minimums.

Step 2: Install FirefoxLet's face it: Despite all the effort Microsoft has put into making Internet Explorer more secure, one is hard-pressed to find an IT security administrator who truly feels safe using it. And so one of the first things they do is install an alternative browser -- Mozilla Firefox, in most cases. [See: IE or Firefox: Which is More Secure?]

"Firefox with NoScript currently provides one of the best levels of protection against browser-based attacks," says Christophe Veltsos, president of Prudent Security and keeper of the DrInfoSec blog.

Step 3: Install NoScript and other Firefox add-onsIndeed, nearly everyone who said they install Firefox said they also grab the NoScript add-on, which only lets trusted websites (the user's online bank, for instance) run JavaScript, Java, Flash and other plug-ins, and defends users from cross-site scripting (XSS) and clickjacking attacks. It uses a whitelisting approach that blocks scripts that may attempt to exploit security vulnerabilities without loss of functionality.

Security pros have other favorite Firefox add-ons that are immediately downloaded once Firefox is on a new laptop. Not all of them are specifically for security, but they are typically tools security pros use to do their jobs.

Robert Fuller, a Washington DC-based pen tester and security blogger, also grabs such add-ons as Adblock Plus, which blocks ads and banners on the Internet that often take longer to download than everything else on the page [including needed security programs]; Web Developer and Firebug, which integrates with Firefox to give the users extra development tools they can use while browsing. It allows the user to edit, debug and monitor CSS, HTML and JavaScript live in any Web page.

Kevin Riggins, senior information security analyst at Des Moines, Iowa-based Principal Financial Group, says he needs certain programs to allow him the "full Web experience," like Flash and QuickTime. And while Apple's iTunes is seen by some IT shops as a security risk, many of those interviewed say they are quick to add it to new machines.

The reasons go beyond simply the user's desire to hear music or watch videos while working. A growing number of security practitioners produce their own podcasts, videos and blogs to share information with peers and raise security awareness among the general user population. Programs like QuickTime and iTunes therefore become neccesary tools of the trade.

Step 4: Search for all needed Windows patchesIT security administrators who responded to our query said they just assume there are old security flaws lurking on new machines, so one of the first actions they take is to run Windows Update to search whatever patches the machine needs.

Atlanta-based security practitioner Ariel Silverstone, a regular columnist at CSOonline, notes that he goes looking to install "180 Microsoft patches."

David Curry, head of information risk management at Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, says he "runs Windows Update" until there are simply no more updates to be found.

Some use third-party flaw finders to see what needs patching (e.g. Secunia's Personal Software Inspector).

Step 5: Customize your AV/firewall packageThis one will strike the reader as obvious, to say the least. After all, these are the security basics. But there are a lot of different antivirus and firewall products on the market, so it's useful to see what different security pros choose.

Silverstone prefers AVG Internet Security for Windows machines and ClamAV for boxes running the Ubuntu operating system. AVG Technologies pitches the software as "real-time protection" against viruses, spyware and other garden-variety malware. ClamAV is an open-source antivirus toolkit for UNIX, designed especially for e-mail scanning on mail gateways. It is owned by Sourcefire, provider of the popular Snort IDS tool.

CSO blogger John Tierney, CISSP, CISA and director of information systems and security for a New York State water utility, prefers Avast Antivirus and Spybot for extra protection against spyware. Riggins says he also goes for Avast, AVG or Comodo for antivirus.

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