The Five-Step Guide To Securing Someone Else's Computer

You know it's going to happen; a friend or relative asks you to help set up their new computer and ensure that they're protected from all the potential nasties out there. Follow these five simple steps to make sure their machine is safe.

Picture by Andrea Verdiani

For the purposes of this guide, I'm presuming that the target of your kindness does not know much about security. More advanced users might choose to ignore or modify a couple of these stages, but for typical, non-technical users, these are all essential.

1. Make sure the machine is patched

This is the most crucial stage, though it's also the most tedious. Even a brand-new machine won't have all the latest software updates on it, but having those installed is arguably the most crucial element of your security arsenal. Criminals constantly try to discover new weaknesses to exploit, but malware which is entirely avoidable continues to proliferate because people don't remember to patch.

This guide walks you through you to install updates on Windows and Mac if you're not familiar with the process. Remember that you may need to go through the update process multiple times; keep doing it until no more updates are available. This can easily take a couple of hours (depending on the speed of your machine and your connection). Have something else to do (a book to read or a phone to play with) while you're waiting.

2. Install security software

Whether you choose a paid-for product (handy for deferring support issues) or use a free option, it's important to have proper protection on your machine. Install it, make sure it has downloaded relevant updates, and run a scan on the machine. In theory there shouldn't be an issue with a brand-new computer, but caution pays. (If the machine comes with trial versions of other security software, uninstall those first.)

3. Set up a browser password manager

Using a browser password manager eliminates most of the common mistakes people make with passwords. Our guide to setting one up will ensure safe passwords for online use that will make the computer's owner less vulnerable to attack.

4. Set up a boot USB stick

If the machine does experience problems — whether security or hardware-related — booting into Windows (or Mac OS X) may not be possible. Setting up a bootable USB will give you a way to access the machine if problems occur. Again, we have a detailed guide on what you need to do to set this up.

5. Make sure automatic updates are enabled

Updates to the OS and security software are essential to maintain security, so make sure these are switched on. Most operating systems security packages will default to automatically downloading updates, but it pays to double-check. In Windows, search for Windows Update and check that 'Install updates automatically' is selected. In Mac OS X, check Software Update in System Preferences (the default is to check weekly). For your security software, the location will vary, but typically it's found under a Settings or Update option.

Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?


    Deleting the IE shortcut and providing Chrome with AdBlock pro has literally cut my family/friends tech support needs by 80%

      I never thought to even install adblock on my family members pc's... you sir, are a genius!

    In no particular order:
    1) Automatic updates and patch
    2) MSE
    3) Install firefox/chrome with adblock. Rip out Adobe Reader, install sumatra/foxit
    4) Rip out any unused third-party software (to reduce the attack surface). Break out msconfig and strip down the startup programs to a minimum.
    5) Make sure the network is secure (WPA etc)
    6) Take the main user account down to regular user privileges, make sure UAC is enabled
    7) set up some remote assist software for next time.

    Browser password managers: less ideal. It requires user effort to work as required, and you'll likely get support calls about it.
    USB stick: Only if you're planning to use it as a clean image to remote into. If not, there's no advantage to leaving one with the computer.

    Bonus Advice: Snap a few pictures and screenshots of their setup before you go. Include network settings, computer and router models, and a shot of the system information and installed programs. It'll save you a lot of time troubleshooting over the phone.

    Whoever chose the new font for your headings needs to learn why spaces are good.
    Seriously the headlines on the front page are hard to read and the subheadings (especially "Make sure automatic updates are enabled") just look like one large garbled word that takes far too long to parse.
    Viewing on Firefox 10.0.2 here.

      The Font is big time fail unless you deliberately want to make yourselves a laughing stock AND unreadable at the same time.

    Whoever chose the new font for your headings needs to learn why spaces are good.
    Seriously the headlines on the front page are hard to read and the subheadings (especially "Make sure automatic updates are enabled") just look like one large garbled word that takes far too long to parse.
    Viewing on Firefox 11.0 here.

    Agree re the font, it is dreadful.

    Set Windows updates to update all MS stuff, not just the Windows-specific components.

    Install as much as possible via Ninite and keep the installer. Either schedule this as a periodic job (needs admin privs) or remind the user to launch it every now and again to upgrade all the software automatically.

    Install a browser with extensions for: ad-blocking, forcing HTTPS connections where possible (especially if it's a laptop), some kind of cookie guard.

    Install remote access software for future use.

    Another app that helps with security is Secunia PSI. Looks for updates to installed programs and automatically patches those programs. If it can't auto install the patches it'll advise you so you can manually update. Very handy. Another handy PDF reader/writer is Nitro PDF - anythings's better than Adobe bloatware. I see Johann mentioned forcing HTTPS wherever possible. Good move, and there's an extension available for bothe Firefox and Chrome which does just that called HTTPS Everywhere available from .

    On the font - yes it looks terrible.

    So useful, look frontward to coming back.

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