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Originally published November 8, 2013 at 4:34 PM | Page modified November 9, 2013 at 3:44 PM

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Boot-ups to malware: 20 years of tech column

After writing 1,000 technology Q&A columns over nearly 20 years, Patrick Marshall reflects on how far personal technology has come and what the top five reader concerns are nowadays.


Special to The Seattle Times

Meet the answer man

Patrick Marshall has been answering your questions since 1994. To mark the 1,000th-column milestone, The Seattle Times is holding an open house with Marshall as the guest of honor on Wednesday, Nov. 13, from 2-3:30 p.m., at our headquarters at 1000 Denny Way, Seattle. Please join us.

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I’m not sure whether it makes more sense to mark 20 years or 1,000 columns. But because the 1,000th-column milestone came Oct. 12, a few months before the 20-year mark, I thought it a good time to look at what has changed over that period.

“That the editors of The Seattle Times have decided to launch a new section devoted to technology — and, even more specifically, personal technologies — suggests that computers have become an integral part of the daily lives of a large portion of the population,” I wrote in the premier column, which appeared April 17, 1994. “The mission here is to answer your questions about computers and the software that runs on them. Stumped when all you see is an error message when you turn on your computer? Need to know whether you can upgrade your 386 to a 486, or your Macintosh Classic to a PowerPC? Looking for a program that can help you resolve memory conflicts when installing a sound card? Trying to figure out why your printer works fine with one program but prints only garbage with another?”

The problems users face have definitely changed over the past 20 years. I can’t remember the last time I received a question about boot errors or memory conflicts when installing a device. (Remember when users had to specify memory ranges for peripherals?)

Indeed, of the five major issues facing computer users today — judging from the emails I receive — the only one that was also a major issue in 1994 was security.

Which is not to say, however, that the types of threats to security haven’t changed. In 1994, the major threat was destructive viruses, written by miscreants trying to make names for themselves. Today, malware is generally more sophisticated and is aimed at identity theft or even extortion.

In this anniversary column, I’ll survey the top five current reader concerns based on questions you send me.

1. Security

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of running up-to-date anti-virus and anti-malware programs. But that’s not enough. Such software is often playing catchup with the newest threats.

CryptoLocker, for example, is a piece of malware that encrypts the data on computers and demands users pay a fee for a decryption code. There is no fix available as yet, so the only way around this nasty piece of malware is to have an up-to-date backup that you can use to restore the data after you’ve thoroughly cleaned your computer by reformatting and reinstalling.

Even better, use common sense. Don’t open email attachments if you’re not sure where they come from. Don’t visit questionable websites. Don’t download anything from any website unless you’re confident the source is genuine.

2. Spam

I haven’t seen a satisfactory solution to the growth of spam. Even though I do a lot of work via email, spam emails outnumber legitimate emails in my inbox by a factor of at least 10 to 1.

There are several ways to reduce the amount of spam that lands in your inbox, but they require either attention on your part or dollars for a spam-blocking service.

The most effective way to limit spam for users of email clients, such as Microsoft Outlook, is to use the built-in junk-mail filter and manually click to block future mail from spam senders.

If you use a Web-based mail service, such as Gmail, you’ll want to report spam to the service before deleting it. Either way, you’ll feel like you’re trying to bail out a sinking rowboat.

3. Integrating devices

In 1994, the issue was how to get peripherals to work. Today, operating systems do a pretty good job of automatically detecting and configuring peripherals.

Now the issue is how to access your data across multiple devices because many of us are working with a desktop, a notebook, a tablet and a smartphone. While it’s still not typical for most of these devices to actually sync with each other, cloud storage makes it simple to ensure you’ve got the same, updated data on all your devices. And most storage providers — Microsoft, Google, Amazon — offer 5 to 7 gigabytes of free storage.

The cloud-storage client can be configured to store folders locally and to automatically sync all versions whenever a change is made to a file. Also, I recommend syncing all cloud-stored files to the desktop computer. That way, you’ve always got a backup.

4. Wireless connectivity and security

Yes, “wireless security” is an oxymoron. Wireless connectivity is definitely a convenience, but just the fact that data is traveling through the air means it is more vulnerable.

If you’re using your own wireless network, make sure you use WPA2 encryption because it uses a longer key than earlier types of wireless encryption and is, therefore, harder to crack. Also, make sure your router isn’t broadcasting its station identifier. Yes, you’ll have to tell guests how to manually connect to the network, but you won’t be letting all the neighbors — and roaming hackers — know your network is there.

If you’re connecting to the Internet over a public wireless network, such as at a coffee shop or in a hotel, assume it isn’t secure. Don’t send any sensitive information — including passwords you enter at the keyboard — over such a connection unless you have set up a virtual private network (VPN).

5. Online privacy

The best rule of thumb when it comes to online privacy is to assume it doesn’t exist. Assume that anything you post to your Facebook account may be seen by anyone, including advertisers, employers and others. I once received an email from an editor at The Seattle Times and, because I had my Outlook Social Connector working, along with his email I received a listing of items on his Facebook wall.

My personal choice has been to avoid social networks altogether. But if you must use one, take the time to explore its privacy settings.

And consider downloading an application that will block advertisers and analytic companies from tracking your movements on the Web. I use DisconnectMe, which can be downloaded at https://disconnect.me/.

Questions for Patrick Marshall may be sent by email to pmarshall@seattletimes.com or pgmarshall@pgmarshall.net, or by mail at Q&A/Technology, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.



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