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No spring this year? No problem – it's still time to clean up your tech stuff

By Jim Bray
May 31, 2018

Despite a winter that seems to have pushed spring out of the way to make room for an early summer, the usual stuff you do during spring still need to be done.

This could be the first car wax job of the year, the final throwing out of all that Christmas wrapping you were hoping to use for re-gifting, or just the first mowing of the lawn. And according to IT security company ESET, there's some stuff you can and maybe should be doing to help ensure your technology is brought into the new year as well, whether it be kicking and screaming or not.

An email I received from ESET's PR folks pitches the plaintive plea "do we ever think about spring cleaning our electronics?" And it made me think. Heck, I've never actually considered spring cleaning my stuff (my dear wife would probably say I never think about cleaning at all – including showering – let alone spring cleaning), preferring to let things pile up until they can be ignored no longer.

As much as its email to me was undoubtedly meant to score some cheap advertising (and didn't that work out well!) ESET's advice does make sense. Why not take a specific time of year to take care of business when it comes to keeping your technology safe and up to date? One time of year to do it all, and then you don't have to worry about it until the calendar flips around again (using the calendar rather than the thermometer as a guide, since we clearly can't depend on Parent Nature to give us a real season in which to do our spring cleaning). And then you can go back to techno-sleeping for another year!

ESET's advice is all common-sense stuff, but to those who don't live and breathe tech it's probably not the kind of thing you'd think of automatically. And, as ESET points out, such a "software spring clean" can clear up hard drive space, help keep you safe from the latest cyber-attacks and boost your device's performance.

Here are the five tips "ESET's security experts" think will help you hose down your home tech:

  1. Delete unused apps or programs: The stuff's just taking up space – like all the empty product boxes lying around my home office except that you don't trip over it. Not only is this good for freeing up hard drive space, it could also minimize the entry ports into your system some hacker or data miner could find. And while you're at it, update the software you decide to keep – if it's a free update. If it isn't a free update you'll have to decide whether the cost justifies the improvements. To rewrite an old saw: you either pays your money or you takes your chances. 
  2. Clear your cache: This is like running a vacuum over your web browser. A lot of data gets stored in your browser history and downloaded files, so hosing them down, figuratively of course, can speed up their performance and help minimize the stuff hackers and/or malware can sniff out on your system. Afraid of losing some of the places you go online? If you like a site, bookmark it.
  3. Run updates: I have a bit of an issue with this one. "For best performance and to keep them secure, ensure all devices are running the latest software. Having the latest version ensures you're protected from the most recent threats." That's true enough, but it also means you could be upgrading to a buggy, rushed out version that could be worse than not upgrading. Granted, this in my experience seems to be the exception rather than the rule, but it's worth thinking about – as is the potential that the update you install could include stuff you don't want for whatever reason. I'm not sure I trust Big Software to have my best interests in mind.
  4. Install anti-malware software and perform regular reviews: I agree with this one completely! "Another key step is to install a quality anti-malware solution – such as ESET – for your software and ensure it ranks high amongst independent, third-party antimalware tests, such as Virus Bulletin, SE Labs and AV-Comparatives." And this is why I got the email! I happen to use a common free anti-malware application and update it frequently. Its paid version (and its ilk) supposedly catches online threats without you having to run a manual scan, though because I'm too cheap to actually buy the software, I run a manual scan a few times a week (which doesn't really make it "spring cleaning," I guess).  However you slice it, malware protection gives you another layer of protection. Ditto for antivirus stuff.
  5. Backup your files: Absolutely! I learned this lesson the hard way. We had a video rental business in the early 1980's and our first hard drive (four megabytes!) cost us four grand and that was a lot of money back then. A power spike fried it and we lost everything. Since then I've made so many backups I could fill all those empty carboard boxes in my office with them and still have more CD's, floppies (hey – I should spring clean my floppies since I have no way of reading them any more anyway!), zip disks (Ditto!) and external disk drives.

ESET recommends that you first develop a backup strategy and then conduct regular backups. You should back up to a device that isn't connected to the internet and that disconnects from your computer (like an external USB hard drive). Or you could use a paid system that stores your stuff in "the cloud" assuming you trust the folks at the other end and can justify the cash outlay.

However you do your back up, the first time you do it you should back up all your documents, photos, important emails, web bookmarks, whatever – everything you can't bear to lose – and then delete the stuff you don't need any more. Not only does this save everything for posterity, getting the old stuff off your hard drive and off your system also means it can't be scooped by bad folk.

ESET also says that once you have a good backup strategy in place, "you should also look to 'test' the recovery of a few files manually. This will validate that the recovery process works." Good advice.

After you've done your initial backup, you only need to back up files that have changed since your last backup, which should make it a pretty painless process.

According to ESET's website, the company began life as a "pioneer of antivirus protection, creating award-winning threat detection software." The company says its goal now is to "make sure that everybody can enjoy the breathtaking opportunities that technology offers," though I suspect that doesn't mean they're planning to give every third world kid a new iPad.

And while ESET's advice pertains mostly to your computer stuff, not your audio, video or other home tech, you could always take this time of year to check for firmware updates on such stuff as well.

I'm confident that if any of you want to pursue this more, the folks at ESET would be more than happy to help you. So will many others, but they didn't reach out to me.

Good luck!

Copyright 2018 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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