Image: David Suter

Some recent media reports would have you believing that, thanks to modern connectivity, monsters can crawl through the computer screen and into your home--eating bank accounts and spewing pornography as they go. Most of us know it's not all that bad. But computer networks do present the layperson with some security threats. "The Internet is constantly being attacked and probed even by our allies," says Jim Davis of Iowa State University. "That's the environment in which we live."

With that in mind, Davis and Doug Jacobson, with whom Davis co-directs the Information Systems Security Laboratory at Iowa State, came up with a list of tips (below) for the general public about how to make their computers more secure. Some may seem trivial, but Davis comments that "it is amazing how simple preventative tasks early on can save you time, money and a considerable amount of hassle later on."

  • USE A SECURE PASSWORD: Secure passwords don't contain words found in any dictionary--English, Spanish or technical. Davis and Jacobson recommend passwords that are six to eight characters long, include a mix of letters and numbers, and are unrelated to anything others might know about you (e.g., birthdate).

  • BACK UP OFTEN: It will save you time and money if you are attacked, Jacobson notes.

  • HOLD JAVA AND COOKIES: Disable Java and JavaScript in your browser unless you absolutely need it, Jacobson says, because there are several known security holes associated with it. Also have your computer warn you before accepting "cookies," which raise privacy questions.

  • USE VIRUS SCANNERS AND FIREWALLS: A good virus scanner will check all the files on your computer for bugs. Personal firewall software can protect you online.

  • EXERCISE COMMON SENSE: Make sure you read and understand the privacy policies at the Web sites you visit. Many collect and disseminate information.