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.

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