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What I learned from old cybersecurity mistakes

Big lessons from small problems

black asus laptop computer showing 3 00

Writing general and in-depth topics about cybersecurity was not a career path I expected. Or at least, one didn’t expect to spend a lot of my freelancing time with. But now I thoroughly enjoy discussing topics in a field which, for a long while, has remained niche. Educating people is important, because when you fall victim to a cyber-attack or virus, it isn’t fun. It’s a scary, isolating feeling. A lot of our world involves technology and a reliance on its stability. If it goes south, suddenly a lot of conveniences are out of our reach.

Today I get the chance to write about it and keep readers up-to-date about the latest IT and cybersecurity trends, changes, and topics. But it wasn’t always like this. Though I routinely write about big mistakes and lapses in cybersecurity strategies/frameworks, I wasn’t always a pro. We break a lot of eggs before we finish an omelet, so to speak.

In other words, I had to do a lot of things wrong before I got (most) of it right. And I think by sharing my past mistakes and foul-ups with regular PC security, hopefully, you’ll feel reassured and educated.

The early years

Kids make mistakes, and that’s what happened. One day, I decided to mess around with the various BIOS settings of my family’s Vectra running the Windows 95 OS. I didn’t know what BIOS was, at the time. I used it on a frequent basis, thinking I had enough computer knowledge (based on nothing, by the way), and dove into unfamiliar territory.

The old operating systems were a touch different and allowed you to set a lot of different load parameters, and of course, I altered them based on how they sounded. Good? Bad? I had no idea! And of course, by meddling with things I didn’t understand, I caused serious boot errors and had to get the help of my expert uncle over the phone.

The lesson was don’t go meddling with things you don’t have a grasp on, otherwise you cause bigger problems, which leads to needing help from expert third parties. When in doubt, just ask! Or leave it alone.

Struggles with the laptop

Something a little more relatable: laptop problems. Laptops are technically mobile devices and see a higher use today than ever before. I myself got a Dell in my freshmen year of high school over the holidays. From there, it was no turning back; my high school years were filled with (terrible) writings and numerous PC errors I learned a lot from.

Let’s start with bloatware.

Anti-virus working against me

Modern anti-virus and anti-spam solutions are streamlined and automated. Most programs come with active monitoring tools and large databases of recorded malware. But about 10 years ago, this wasn’t always the case.

The Dell I owned had a lot of “bloatware” installed, programs taking up memory or software you didn’t personally install. This bloatware was anti-virus, which did the opposite of its job. Whether this was part of the program or a virus, once its license expired, I was procedurally hit with nonstop pop-ups reminding me to purchase a new license. If that sounds confusing, providers often charged for their services, whereas today anti-virus solutions are free (usually) with options to upgrade.

Anyway, back then I lacked the resources and knowledge to brute force an uninstall. When dealing with repeated popups or programs running without your consent, you have options. That might include ending a process from Task Manager or utilizing brute force uninstallers. My solution? Format the HDD.

That’s. . . going to come up a lot, sadly.

But what did I learn? Bloatware is a problem. In the face of that process robbing operation, I should’ve had as many backups as possible. At the time, I only had CD’s to write data to.

Dealing with spambots, small viruses, and trackers

Trackers and adware are still, unfortunately, a big part of the digital space. They’re designed to quietly follow and track your activity for “research.” Personally, I’ve never been comfortable with them, though the loss of privacy online is something we have to accept.

Today you do have additional resources to protect your identity and activity, like VPN services to encrypt your browsing habits. But back in the 2000-2010, these things were everywhere. Spambots basically attached to your PC and ran pop-ups on almost every website visit. Today you get ads, but they’re usually associated with the website, and browsers have built in pop-up blockers.

I’ll give a proper nod to Spybot, Search and Destroy, because it was a low-use program that rooted out and deleted trackers after a scan. It helped a lot, but it was a daily occurrence. The important lesson learned was to have a valuable tool helping remove pesky trackers and spam software.

Downloading dangerous executables

Even before I made some serious PC security mistakes, I always knew downloading and running strange programs was a recipe for disaster. But the “funny” thing, the confidence I had in thinking I’d never do such a thing is precisely what led it to happen. “I’d never fall for that,” young me thought. But surprise, it absolutely did.

The specific program I don’t exactly recall, but I know it was from “less than secure” sources, the kind of risks when you’re seeking out third-party software. By not practicing scrutiny, I promptly installed a keylogger, essentially ruining the laptop’s ability to run. Solution? Format the HDD.

Lessons learned: even with all your knowledge, you can make mistakes. Taking precautions is necessary when downloading unfamiliar programs. Also, I learned about the symptoms of a keylogger (extremely slow performance and difficulty performing the simplest actions).

What I know today

I’m skipping over a series of other laptop issues I experienced, such as a sudden HDD failure which required sending the machine in for repairs. Still, all the failures have led me to understand and respect how serious cyber threats are. Also, despite my expertise, I made mistakes, just like everyone else. The knowledge I possess now comes from failure and researching the problems extensively.

If anything, take advice from my own mistakes: always practice caution, never think you’re too smart for a problem, and have backups readily available.

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