Tech Sense: Frequently Asked Questions
This month I will be tackling some questions I get asked frequently or FAQ's.
Should I use a Surge Protector for my Computer?
The answer here is yes you should protect all sensitive electronics equipment with a surge protection device. A computer plugged into an electrical outlet can be damaged by electrical surges. These surges most often are caused by thunderstorms or issues with the electric system. Last March, for example, my neighborhood experienced a large surge caused by a car accident in good weather. Surge protectors kept my computer gear and other electronics safe.
Do I need an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)?
That depends. A UPS provides power to the devices that are plugged into it for some period of time. It uses an internal rechargeable battery to do this. The period of time depends on how much energy is stored in the UPS battery and how much energy is needed by the equipment plugged into the UPS. For a desktop computer, a typical UPS may allow the computer to continue to operate for 10 to 15 minutes, which is enough time to continue working for a few minutes to see if power returns and to save your work before you need to shut down the computer. The UPS can also send a signal to the computer to shut it down gracefully. This is often important to prevent damage to open files on the computer.
This protection isn't normally needed for a laptop with a built-in battery. The battery will typically keep the laptop running for an hour or more, and the laptop can be configured to sleep or hibernate automatically to prevent data loss.
Computers are not the only things that may benefit from a UPS. There are also UPS devices designed to keep your networking equipment working, so you do not lose Internet and phone service while the power is out. Network devices typically use lower power than computers and can be sustained for several hours. For most people using a cable service like Comcast or DSL over the phone line, you will need to provide power to both the cable modem and router. Many Comcast installations now require a signal amplifier as well, and this also needs to be powered. Your telephone adapter or VOIP phones will also require power if you are using a Voice over IP (VOIP) phone line. If you are a Fios customer, the Optical Network Termination (ONT) will need to be powered as well as the router. Fios offers a non-rechargeable battery backup for the ONT that should support 4-8 hours of phone service in the case of an electrical outage.
Should I leave my Computer on All the Time?
In general, the answer is yes. Modern computers recognize when they are not being used and use that time to perform important maintenance tasks like installing updates, scanning for malware, and improving disk performance through optimization. If the computer is turned off, it is unable to perform these tasks and must perform them while you are using the computer slowing down your work. Most modern computers can automatically go into a lower power mode if there are not used for a period of time and wake up when they need to perform maintenance tasks. I normally only turn my computers off when a storm is coming or if I am leaving the house for several days.
Do I need Anti-virus Software?
The answer to this for most computers is yes. Fortunately, Windows now comes with "good enough" malware protection built-in via Windows Defender. There are also a large number of anti-virus programs for Windows available for free or reasonable prices. If you are a Comcast Internet subscriber, they provide free Norton Anti-virus. Apple computers have a number of protection tools, but they are still vulnerable to malware (in spite of what Apple wants you to believe). There are fewer attacks on Apple computers because there are six Windows computers for every Apple computer making Apple a less desirable hacker target. But there is still enough Apple-targeted malware to justify the use of an anti-virus program. Google's Chrome-OS is probably the operating system that is least susceptible to malware, but occasionally malware gets into the Chrome OS store. This is a rarity and anti-virus is probably not needed for the typical Chrome-OS user.
Do Alexa or Google Home Devices Listen all the Time?
Is your new voice device listening all of the time and sending everything said to Amazon or Google? These devices have built-in processors that listen and recognize certain keywords like "Alexa" or "OK Google." They do not send voice data out until after the device recognizes the keywords. Once the keyword has been recognized it sends the speech that follows through the web for text conversion. The device acts on the request if the text is understood. During the request and for a period of time after the request, the device will continue to listen to respond to follow-up requests. This period is about 10-15 seconds for Amazon devices and about 60 seconds for Google devices. In a noisy room, it is possible for the devices to get confused and continue to send voice data for several minutes after initial voice activation. It may be best to turn off the devices in these situations. Amazon devices can also be configured to only listen when a button has been pressed.
This discussion only covers the Google Home and Amazon devices and doesn't cover mobile phones and assistants like Siri and Cortana. Cortana can be set up to use the wake words "Hey Cortana" but if you log into a Microsoft account everything Cortana hears may be sent to Microsoft even if the wake words are never spoken. Some Samsung televisions with voice remote controls are known to listen and transmit voices insecurely to a third-party all of the time. A number of web security cameras are also known to have security issues allowing others to listen in on whatever happens in your home. Be wary of voice assistants and Internet of Things devices.
Next month I will be covering password security to prepare for National Password Day which occurs on May 4th this year.