Windows 7 security: Five simple ways to stay safer

Is your Windows 7 PC as secure as it could be?

Is your Windows 7 PC as secure as it could be?

It's often too easy for you busy laptop warriors to assume your Windows PCs are safe. A computer virus? That's not going to happen to me ... until it does.

So in addition to running a full antivirus software suite, either free and good enough (Avast, Microsoft Security Essentials) or paid and Teflon strong (Symantec Norton, Kaspersky), you should also take advantage of Windows 7's built-in security settings and updates.

These five simple security features in Windows 7 help keep the bad guys at bay.

Action Center

Action Center, the home base for your PC's security, lists all information about security settings. The main role of Action Center is to consistently check on security items such as your network firewall and maintenance items including backup and restore, to make sure your machine is healthy.

The Action Center in Windows 7 gives you a view of all your PC's security and maintenance features.

Action Center shows up as a little white flag on the right-hand side of the Windows 7 toolbar, or it can be reached by the path Control Panel -- System and Security -- Action Center.

Inside Action Center, you can make sure your Windows Firewall is on, your antivirus software is up to date and that your PC is set to install updates automatically.

When the status of a monitored security item changes, such as your antivirus becoming out of date, Action Center notifies you with a message in the taskbar. Then when you open Action Center, the status of the item in question changes color to indicate the severity of the problem, and an action is requested.

[ For complete coverage on Microsoft's Windows 7 operating system -- including hands-on reviews, video tutorials and advice on enterprise rollouts -- see CIO.com's Windows 7 Bible. ]

Action Center is a helpful resource that warns you when there may be trouble. Be sure not to neglect those Action Center messages when they turn up.

Windows Defender

Windows Defender, antispyware software that's included with Windows 7, runs automatically when it is turned on.

Spyware is any unwanted or potentially harmful software that can be installed on your computer without your knowledge any time you connect to the Internet. It can also infect your computer when you install programs using a CD or DVD.

Windows Defender staves off spyware in two ways:

  • Real-time protection. Windows Defender alerts you when spyware attempts to install itself or to run on your computer. It also alerts you when programs attempt to change important Windows settings.
  • Scanning options. You can use Windows Defender to scan for spyware that might be installed on your computer, to schedule scans on a regular basis, and to automatically remove anything that's detected during a scan.

To open Windows Defender, click the Start button located in the far left of the task bar. In the search box, type Defender, and then, in the list of results, click Windows Defender.

User Account Control

UAC, the security feature that prompts you for permission to install or open programs, was despised by Windows Vista users, but it is much more customizable in Windows 7. The options are no longer "on or off"; there are four notification levels that a user can set.

The four settings in Windows 7 UAC's customizable slider range from Always notify to Never notify.

The improved Windows 7 UAC is essential in that it informs you when a program makes a change that could potentially harm your computer or make it susceptible to security threats.

If you are your computer's administrator (in most cases you are), you can click Yes to continue. If you are not an administrator, someone with an administrator account on the computer will have to enter their password for you to continue.

When your permission is needed to open a program or install software, UAC will notify you with one of four different types of dialog boxes:

  • When a program or setting is part of Windows and needs your permission to start.
  • When a program is not a part of Windows and needs your permission to start
  • When a program with an unknown publisher needs your permission to start
  • When you have been blocked by your system administrator from running a program because the program is known to be untrusted

To modify User Account Control Settings, click the Start button and then click Control Panel. In the search box, type uac, and then click Change User Account Control Settings.

Windows Update

Windows Update can be a pest, especially when updates pop up when you're in the middle of 10 things. But by installing the latest updates as they become available for your PC, you are continually improving the security, reliability and performance of your computer without too much of an inconvenience.

Slideshow: Windows 7 Hardware in Pictures: The Latest and Greatest Laptops Slideshow: Seven Features in Windows 7 You Probably Don't Know About Slideshow: Seven Tools to Ease Your Windows 7 Rollout

You can set Windows to automatically install "important" and "recommended" updates or to install important updates only. Important updates are for more critical security and reliability issues and recommended updates address noncritical problems.

To turn on automatic Windows Updates:

  • Click on the Start button. In the search box type Update, and then in the list of results click Windows Update.
  • In the left pane, click Change Settings.
  • Under Important updates, you can choose if you want to install new updates automatically, and the day and time you want the latest updates to take place (i.e. Every Day at 6 am).
  • Under Recommended Updates select the "Give me recommended updates the same way I receive important updates" check box, and then click OK.

Windows Firewall

Windows Firewall is an easy feature to turn on or off and can help prevent hackers and worms from slithering into your computer through a network or the Internet. A firewall can also help stop your computer from sending malicious software to other computers.

Unless you have another firewall enabled, such as a corporate network firewall, you should turn on Windows Firewall to protect your computer and network (if you have one).

To turn on Windows Firewall:

  • Click the Start button, and then click Control Panel. In the search box, type firewall, and then click Windows Firewall.
  • In the left pane, click "Turn Windows Firewall on or off." If you're prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation.
  • Click Turn on Windows Firewall under each network location that you want to help protect, and then click OK.

Note: If your computer is connected to a corporate network, your company's group policy settings might prevent you from turning on Windows Firewall.

Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Shane at soneill@cxo.com.

Read more about security in CIO's Security Drilldown.

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Tags UACWindowsWindows 7Technology Topicssoftwarewindows defenderoperating systemsspywareTechnology Topics | SecuritysymantecsecurityMicrosoft

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Shane O'Neill

CIO (US)

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