Security

10 ways to safeguard your college-bound student's computer

You protect your corporate systems, but what about that back-to-school laptop you just bought your kid? Here are some things you can do to keep your student safe from cyber dangers.

As back-to-school season gears up, now is the time to make sure that your kids are heading off to college with a system that is safe and secure. Here are 10 things you will want to have squared away before your kids leave the nest to ensure the security and integrity of their computers and their data.

Note: For more info on equipping your college student this fall, check out ZDNet's Back to School Special Report and CNET's Back to School Buying Guide.

1: Anti-malware

Most college students are not tech savvy, even if they know how to find things on the Internet that you did not know existed. The truth is, your average student is just as bad with computers as the end users you've been struggling to support since they were hired out of college two years ago. This means that college students lack the "computer hygiene" an IT pro like you has, and they're more likely to be exposed to a virus.

To make matters worse, college students spend a lot of time clicking dubious links on Facebook, hitting file-sharing services, and performing other actions that put them in the sights of the malware writers. Don't send your kids to school without a quality anti-malware product installed, and if it requires a subscription, pay it for them. Between my brother and my sister, my mother paid for three or four virus wipes and two or three full system reinstalls while they were in college.

2: Non-administrative user for daily use

To reduce the risk of malware even further, make sure that your kids are logging into their computer with a non-administrative user account. While this is not going to prevent all infections, it reduces the risk of some of them and limits the damage of others.

3: Payment for their music/movie services

If you are anything like me, the last thing you need is yet another recurring bill. At the same time, you really should be paying for your kids to have access to something like Netflix, Hulu, or iTunes. Why? Kids like to follow the path of least resistance to obtain their media. If you do not make it as easy as possible for them to get it from legal, malware-free sources, they are likely to just fire up a file sharing system and download it, regardless of the possibility of getting a virus.

4: Physical security

Criminals love college students because they are the easiest marks in the world. Their rooms and apartments are typically filled with expensive consumer electronics. Yet they often don't lock doors, especially when there are so many people in the house that someone's always lost a key, they're expecting company, or they assume someone is home when they aren't. College students lack awareness of security, too -- like not knowing to close the curtains so that their valuables are not visible from the street. While you can't guarantee that your kids lock down like they should, you can buy them things like locking cables to make it harder for a thief to take their stuff. And if your kids are living off campus, make sure that they do not live on the ground floor.

5: Easy backups

Get their computer set up with an easy-to-use, zero-effort backup system. For the amount of data that the typical student creates (primarily papers, essays, and research notes), online backups will not be an issue at all in terms of speed. A service like Carbonite (read my review of it here) will do a great job at protecting their must-have information without requiring them to remember to plug in a drive or kick off a backup job.

6: Reconsidering that tablet and smartphone

There are a lot of good reasons for not getting your student a smartphone or tablet. Security is a big part of that equation. Tablets and phones often have all the keys to the kingdom stored on them, and they are not easily secured. All it takes is for someone to lift your kid's iPad when he gets up for a beverage refill in the dining hall for all sorts of important information to be available to the thief. Why make it that easy? Larger laptops are less likely to "walk" (and more easily spotted when they do) than tablets and smartphones, and desktop PCs are even less likely to go missing.

7: The extended service plan

I know the math on those extended warranties is not in your favor. But do you really want to spend an evening walking your kid through a disk wipe and OS reinstall after a malware attack from "parts unknown?" I sure don't. This is one of those cases where you allow yourself to get a little ripped off in exchange for not having to deal with the potential hassle yourself.

8: Remote assistance software

For those times when the extended service plan won't get a helpful professional on the phone, you will want to have a way to work on it yourself. There are a variety of services out there, some free and some not so free, that will allow you to observe as your child follows your directions. Some will also let you control it yourself. Look for one that is easy to use and requires no configuration.

9: WiFi setup

Most WiFi routers are wide open to intruders, out-of-the-box. Some have setup CDs that configure them (and the computers connected to them) to work securely. Let's be honest, though: Lots of people don't read the directions on these things or bother with the setup kits. They just plug them in and go. Instead of letting your kids set things up and possibly leave themselves exposed to intruders, preconfigure the WiFi and the equipment to use it in a locked-down manner.

While you're at it, make sure that the devices are set up so they won't expose data when running on unfamiliar WiFi networks, so your kids will be protected while they are out and about. If your kids' living situation already comes with "secure" WiFi or Internet access, you will still want to set them up with their own subnet. You don't want them to be exposed to the malware that their fellow dormers will inevitably get infected with.

10: Being approachable

I know it's tempting to roll your eyes and get a bit snippy if someone asks you for help with a computer when you aren't on the job. (Just ask my wife how I feel about it.) The problem is, your kids are less likely to come to you with questions or problems --  and more likely to listen to their equally ignorant friends, the popup on their screen that says, "You have an infection, click here to fix it!" and other sources of bad or even damaging information. Make yourself available and let your kids feel comfortable discussing these issues with you. It will go a long way toward ensuring they will respond to any problems the right way.

Other tips?

What steps will you be taking to protect your college student this fall? Share your tips with other TechRepublic members.

About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

12 comments
glnz
glnz

You wrote "If your kids’ living situation already comes with “secure” WiFi or Internet access, you will still want to set them up with their own subnet." How do I do that? Thanks.

PassingWind
PassingWind

+1 TwoHawks. Just in case all else fails, make sure you have spare recovery media in safe storage ... And yes - VPN and/or remote access to and from the home system sounds good to me too.

Brainstorms
Brainstorms

...runs Linux. She's never had a virus or other malware to deal with. (Yeah, I know, it doesn't cover 100% of the bases, esp. with the gamers out there, but for web surfing, etc. it covers essentially everything she wants/needs to do, "iPod & all". She's not tech-savvy, either. And it's very easy for me to do remote admin -- securely.) I like the VPN idea; I'm going to investigate that.

Two Hawks
Two Hawks

Decent pitch, JJ. I would throw in consideration for... 11) a VPN service: for as little as $8 a month you can get them zero hassle fulltime encrypted connection anywhere they are connecting. Those kids are using those things in all the public places alot, and for keeping their delicate info many degrees less vulnerable to hackers and sniffers I think its well worth it. You can get free VPN services as well, but they will probably disable it after encountering the hassles, so why bother - pay the $8-or-so and make it as easy and simple (transparent) as possible. 12) Install a good pass-phrases (code-) keeper and get them excited about actually using it and using a good passphrase to lock it, and using that instead of the one built into their browsers or whatever (disable form fillers in their browsers). They'll be happy with how it prefills website forms easily while also keeping any sensitive notes they want safe and private, even if the laptop is stolen (well, relatively safe, anyway). fyi, Keepass is great for PC, and 1Password popular for Mac. And get them to learn to use passphrases instead of passwords, this is 2011. (I just feel better knowing they are not scribblling bank and card codes and all sorts onto a notepad in the computer - ya know.) I go for encrypting their drives too, but thats just me. Appreciate this post - lets help our kids be safe, and ourselves to keep some colored hair.

bboyd
bboyd

Like most things teach them good effective habits will go farther than any remedial solution. My first upgrade to most machines is to get a browser running that uses some kind of white listing approach to scripts. Generally that involves not using IE. Do they know how to use a proxy, or how to check the virus isolation folder? What about making sure they don't turn off the AV for a little program that won't install without doing so. Do they know that is a major sign for a dangerous choice? These are things that should have been taught over the course of the last 18 years not just the next month. But you have one last chance before the hard learned lessons of real life start knocking. My dad was a mechanic so I learned how to maintain a motor vehicle well. If you can implement the list above you should pass on all the skills that are involved, computer literacy will take them a long way in the brave new world.

Crash2100
Crash2100

Or you if the kid's internet is public, they could just buy them a cheap VPN router, and setup a VPN connection using certificates and DynDNS.org. You can buy a nice little wireless VPN router like the Netgear FVG318 for less than $80.

haitge
haitge

Wireless routers are discouraged and frequently prohibited where they interfere with campus wireless. They often create so much extra networking noise and disrupt other users connections.

MikeDean123
MikeDean123

That happens in my experience too. Would there be a way around that? las vegas show

haitge
haitge

There is not a problem with the wireless connection. The campus(s) provide the wireless connections in dorms, classrooms and other buildings.

PassingWind
PassingWind

Wireless routers may also be banned where the college has a VPN to off-campus accommodation. Much to the surprise of some computer science students, wireless and wired routers can be detected and distinguished between. But you expect the teachers to know more than their students :-)

Ron_007
Ron_007

Even a basic wired router for their room will provide that extra bit of protection. Splurge and make sure it has a built in firewall too. Of course, when you get a router, make sure to set it up securely. New Password etc. I am

Crash2100
Crash2100

I didn't realize that, I just assumed they would want wireless to use with laptops. But, the funny little irony, if they don't want wireless, you can actually buy the plain wired model FVS318 for about $20 less.