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Tech, GP

June 5, 2010

Tech, GP: For safer online banking and shopping, look outside of Windows

My last column was an attempt to help people avoid the most common problem I encounter, malware infections on Windows computers.

In general, it was about what you can do to reduce the likelihood of having your Windows computer become infected.

At the end of that column, I mentioned that in my next one I would give some alternative ideas to using Windows all the time.

Now, the logic goes like this. Most people, by far, use one version or another of the Windows operating system. This creates a large target for the criminals who write malware. The large number of users translates to more opportunity for the bad guys.

After all, if there is a choice between casting your bait into a pool with a huge number of fish or casting into one with only a handful of fish, which would you take?

So, the object of this column is to move your computer out of the pool with a huge number of fish into the one with only a few.

This reduces your risk factor. The bad guys have less incentive to write malware for the small pool.

What I'll be talking about is how to use an alternative operating system, Linux, on your Windows computer, at least for the most critical functions you do online, like banking and shopping, where you run the most risk.

In the "old days," maybe two or three years ago, it was a lot more involved to switch operating systems, or create a computer on which you had a choice of systems to use when you started it up.

It's much easier now. Indeed, I think it's easy enough for a person who is only a moderately skilled computer user to do it.

There are a lot of different versions, or "distributions," of Linux. For the sake of simplicity, I will be referring to only one, which is called "Ubuntu." It is free. Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning "humanity to others."

Ubuntu is not the only distribution you could use, but it has become very popular, and arbitrarily I have selected it to talk about here.

What I am going to tell you how to do will enable you to use Windows for most of your tasks, as usual, but switch to Ubuntu for things you do that you would want the most security for.

I would suggest things such as online banking and online shopping, for starters _ things where you provide important passwords and credit card numbers, or other such information.

I should mention that Linux will run well on most computers, but there is the possibility that some computers have hardware that Linux may not know how to deal with.

If you're interested, read on.

There are two ways to go about it.

One way is to create a CD that you can use to boot your computer from when you want to use Linux. This is the absolute safest way, as you never actually change anything on your computer. You insert the CD, restart the computer, and Ubuntu will boot up. Then you can start the Internet browser, Firefox, and do your stuff. Nothing gets written to your hard disk, so it's like getting a brand-new operating system every time you boot. This is also a good way to see how your computer reacts to Linux without committing to any changes to it.

The other way is to install Ubuntu right onto your computer as an alternative operating system. You will pick the system you want to use from a menu every time your computer starts up. This way you can save information to your hard disk, such as favorite websites, files and so forth.

Let me say first that I'm assuming you have a fast Internet connection. If you have a dial-up connection, it's really not practical to download the large file we need.

Surf to www.ubuntu.com. There is a lot of explanatory information there, so peruse the site as you wish, but to get things going, click on "try Ubuntu today." Near the top of the next page, you can click on "Get Ubuntu desktop edition".

Click on "Start download." This should begin the transfer of a large file, called an ISO file. After it is finished downloading (it will take a long time), you need to use a program that can burn the .iso file onto a CD. Most computers that come with a CD burner also come with a program that will do this.

If you are not in a hurry and are intimidated by this process, you can ask the Ubuntu organization to mail you a CD. It will do it for free, but it may take up to 10 weeks to come.

After you have created or received the CD, just put it into your CD drive and re-start your computer. It should boot from the CD and begin running Ubuntu.

If it doesn't, you may have watch very carefully when the computer starts, and press a certain key at the right time to get to a menu that will allow you to boot from the CD drive. It depends on the setup of your computer. This can be changed, if necessary, but doing that is beyond the scope of this column.

When the computer boots from the CD, you will have the options to run Ubuntu from the CD, without changing anything on your computer, and installing Ubuntu along with Windows. Make your choice accordingly.

Once Ubuntu has started, you can run Firefox, the Internet browser and do whatever surfing you want. Now, you will not be subject to any Windows-based malware. You're in the pool with fewer fish.

Good luck, and have fun.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at techgp@dailystarmail.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/techgp.

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