Tips & Tricks

Mobile Devices

We all get used to the convenience of our mobile devices. We get spoiled by the instant access to magic levels of communications access. We get seduced by the ease with which we can see and do and talk. We get lazy.

There are so many ways your devices make you life easier, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that the ease they bring to us comes at the cost of risk – the risk that all of our personal data will fall into someone else’s hands.

Luckily, there are really only a four vectors of that risk and each of those vectors is relatively easy to block.

The first vector of privacy breaches is at the systemic or bulk level. Most mobile devices use some kind of a cloud backup system for the data you put onto the device. In most cases, the companies providing that cloud backup are reliable and dedicated to keeping your data safe and secure. In most cases you can be confident in their ability to keep your data safe, after all, if they are breached, the bad press goes globally viral immediately and they’re looking for a new business. If you are concerned, you can always take the most obvious step and not keep sensitive stuff on your phone in the first place. If it is isn’t on your device, it can’t be stolen from your device or from your cloud backup. You can also exclude sensitive stuff from cloud backups. Most devices and services offer some kind of granularity in deciding what is backed up and you can almost always exclude things if you want to.

The second vector is by way the communications channel your device uses to access the cloud. Be very cautious of unencrypted channels! If you see an open, unsecured WiFi node, be very hesitant of using it. Many are legitimate and safe to use, but there are lots of cases of malefactors setting up open WiFI nodes in public places in order to snoop on the unencrypted traffic that ensues. Keep in mind that if the channel is not password protected, any traffic sent over that channel is open to snoopers.

The third vector is that of the physical connection to the phone. In at least one case, malefactors set up a ‘charging station’ in a busy airport. Travellers plugged their phones into the provided USB charging cords, unaware that the cords were plugged into a computer programmed to not just charge the phones, but to download everything from the phones via the USB link for later examination. If you need to charge your device, plug your charger into the wall and plug your phone into it.

The final vector is via the device itself. If you lose your device, everything on it is right there for whoever finds it. Taking such simple steps as setting a passcode or swipe pattern to unlock the device will not completely prevent someone from accessing your data, but it can slow them down enough that they give up or at the very least it may give you time to remotely brick the device.

SupercomputerFor desktop and laptop computers, the two mainstream options are Windows and Mac. Each one has strengths and weaknesses that may influence which is a better fit for you.

Traditionally, Windows computers have had lower prices at the low end of the price scale and have had access to much more software, while Macs have stuck to the higher end and have had less software choices available, but that’s not necessarily the case any more. Low end Macs offer incredible performance for reasonable prices and the software market on Macs has expanded enormously.

For home users, the biggest difference between Windows and Macs comes down to gaming. In gaming, Windows is the clear winner as there are many more games available for that platform. Macs are catching up and there are more cross-platform titles available all the time, but if you’re a hard-core gamer, Windows is the clear choice for you.

For business, the choice may be determined by any special software for your business. A lot of industry specific software is only available on one platform or the other, so you really have little choice. If you’re in an industry where your choice isn’t determined by the software and you only need the generic word-processing/spreadsheet/business graphics programs we all need, you’ll find there’s little or no difference.

Go with that you’re comfortable with. If you’ve always used Windows, there’s no overwhelming case to be made for switching to Mac, and vice versa.

Having said all of that, if you’re not afraid of looking beyond the mainstream and want something that faster, more stable and more flexible than what the big two offer, Linux is for you. Unlike Windows or Mac, Linux isn’t the product of a single monolithic software company with a vested interest in tying you to their products. Linux is a an open source operating system, meaning it is free to use and free to modify.

There are hundreds of ‘distributions’ of Linux freely available to download and use. Once you’ve installed a Linux distro, you can modify it however you wish, adding or removing components to create an operating system that does what you want it do do, exactly as you want it to do it. Popular distributions of Linux, such as Ubuntu or Mint, are as easy to install and set up as Windows or the Mac OS, and offer access to libraries of thousands of free software packages that cover the full gamut of functions. There are still some areas where the interfaces and options available on Linux distributions are not as user-friendly and idiot-resistant as their commercial counterparts, but for most users, Linux is a viable, stable and useable choice.

Online privacy – or the apparently staggering lack thereof – has been a hot topic for years. It seems every day there’s another story about how much personal information is stolen or compiled or misused in some manner.

You can pretty easily control how much of your personal information is available to be misused by simply controlling what you make available.

If you’re worried about people accessing your naughty pictures, either don’t upload them to photo storage systems or don’t take them in the first place.

If you’re worried about people getting access to your banking information or credit card numbers, be vigilant about what sites you give that information. Many banks and credit companies now offer very restrictive online only credit cards that can limit the amount of damage a leaked credit card cumber can do.

If you’re just worried in general about unauthorized people spying on you online, be careful about using unsecured WiFi connections, use secure access as much as possible and make sure you use good, robust passwords. Be cautious about what you upload or post. In the old days, I used to tell clients that anything the put anywhere online was essentially posted in the most public possible place and accessible by anyone, anytime, forever. If you’ve got information that you REALLY don’t want anyone to know, don’t count on any online service keeping it totally secure. Leaks happen.

The bottom line is that your privacy online is much like it is in the real world – as good as your habits.

Disk CrashThere are two kinds of people – people who have lost everything when their hard drive failed and people who are going to lose everything when their hard drive fails.

When your hard drive dies, you don’t need to lose all of your stuff. If you’ve got a good, up-to-date back-up, you can be up and running on new or repaired equipment very quickly. If you don’t have a back-up, you will need to reconstruct and re-enter everything.

Sadly, making sure you’ve backed up your all of your stuff can be tricky, since many programs store your data in unexpected places and you may store your data in odd places, too.

In general, most people tend to file their work in the “Documents” folder of their home folder, or on their desktop. Backing those files up is pretty easy, as you just need to pop in a flash drive and drag the files onto it. Get in the habit of doing that once a day or once a week and you’re good to go. Stuff that doesn’t change as often doesn’t need to be backed up as often.

When it comes to data like accounting, address book and calendar information, things are a bit more complex. Most of those programs store their data outside of the “Documents” folder, often in hidden locations or buried inside preference folders. With programs like that, look for an “Export…” option in the menus and use that command to export the program data to a location you can easily access, then back up that exported data. Often, you can simply “Import..” that same data if the need arises.

There are built in backup systems available on all major operating systems. Check out the one on your computer. Set it up and use it! Put it on an automated schedule! Don’t lose your stuff!


The short answer: the one you have and use regularly is the best one.

The long answer…

There are pluses and minuses to all of them. The most important factor to remember is that anti-virus software is only effective if you use it regularly. If you’re constantly bypassing it and haven’t set up regular scans, nothing is going to help protect your machine.

Personally, I really like ClamAV. It’s a open source project, meaning it’s built by people who are personally interested in it, the source code is available for anyone to look at and it’s free. It comes in a number of flavors to match your operating system (such as ClamWin for Windows and ClamXav for Macs.) It’s easy to set up, unobtrusive and highly configurable.

There are dozens of options out there, just pick one and use it!

I know. It’s infuriating. Every site wants a log-in and a password.

It’s tempting to use one username and one password for every site, but that’s a disaster waiting to happen. If you go that route, what happens when your username and password for one site gets leaked? Yup…. if you’ve used the same log-in credentials for everything, somebody who has access to one thing has access to everything.

Here’s a way around it – use a consistent pattern for your passwords rather than a consistent password. Make it something you can remember but tough for someone else to guess. Make it something with letters, numbers and punctuation so it’s likely to meet most sites password requirements. Make it something that changes for each site you need to log in to.

For example – start with something random and memorable like ‘Tiger!123’ and add the name of the site. That would mean your Google password might be ‘Tiger!123Google’ and your Apple password would be ‘Tiger!123Apple’.

See how that works? You get something you can remember but anybody else would have a hard time guessing, and it’s different for every site, so compromising one doesn’t compromise all of them.

TrafficjamdelhiWe’ve all seen it – our computer starts pausing. It’s infuriating. It’s not really crashed, but it goes in jerky steps. Maybe the screen gets clunky or falls behind in our typing. There are long delays before anything happens.

Usually, this means the machine is overworked. Your computer hardly ever works on just one thing at a time. The program you are using in the foreground is the tip of an iceberg and there are dozens of tasks going on behind the screen. There are always programs running in the background on your computer, using the spare microseconds between your keystrokes to do whatever they do. When you have too many of those background tasks, or when they are taking more than their fair share of processor time, your computer slows down as the computer struggles to keep up with you.

To fight this, try to minimize the numbers of background processes your computer tries to run. On Windows, the Task Manager shows you what’s running and how much of the processor time is being spent on each one. On Macs, the Activity Monitor does the same thing and on Linux it’s usually the System Monitor. Use your computers monitor tool to see what’s slowing you down.

Look for processes other than the one you’re actively using that use large amounts of system resources. Think about whether those processes are essential to what you do. It’s usually unsafe to quit those processes directly, but make a note of them and use the startup manager to turn them off on the next reboot. If you find you’re still productive without that background process, try disabling it permanently or removing it.

Sometimes it feels like the internet is filled with nothing but cats and con artists. Whether you like cats or not is up to you, but nobody likes con artists.

One of the most common scams involves a con artist claiming to be from ‘Microsoft Support’ calling an unsuspecting victim and claiming that person’s computer has been infected with some kind of virus or malware. They clam that if the victim gives them a credit card number, they can fix the ‘problem.’ If the victim gives them the number, the scammer then directs the victim to download and install a ‘fix.’ Of course, the ‘fix’ is actually some kind of malware, typically opening up the victim’s computer to further mischief while the scammer happily uses the ill-gotten credit card number.

Protecting against this scam is easy – BE SKEPTICAL!

Ask yourself “Does it make sense that Microsoft, a massive company with software used by billions of computers all over the world, would be calling me? Would they really employ someone to call up any one of their customers with troubleshooting advice? Have they ever called me before? Is is sensible to think they can identify who is running my computer and can find a way to call me?”

The answer to all of the above is “No.” None of it makes sense.

Ask yourself those questions and then ask them to any caller who says they’ve found a problem with your computer.

Be skeptical! Be curious! Ask the questions and demand clear, sensible answers.

One of my favourite tools for keeping Windows running fast and smooth is CCleaner from Piriform. It’s a quick, reliable way to steam clean your hard drive and the Windows registry. Over time, both fill up with outdated, corrupt or redundant files and entries. CCleaner scans both and removes all of the stuff that’s slowing things down and wasting space.

The free version is so great, I recommend buying the full version just to keep Piriform in business, doing what they do.