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University of Wyoming Division of Information Technology

Computers Are Not Toasters

Computers are not toasters. Even a child the age of five can tell the difference. Oh sure, they both have slots that can hold Hot Wheels and Finding Nemo trading cards, and they both make excellent drums, but that's where the similarities end. To a child, a computer has pictures and sounds and pretty lights and lots of buttons, whereas a toaster will only spit out a waffle now and then. So, it's easy for a kid to tell the difference. We adults apparently have a lot to learn.

There isn’t much to buying and maintaining a toaster. Pick a color, number of slots, and bring it home and plug it in. Drop in some bread, push the lever down, and grab the jelly. The only maintenance is cleaning the crumb tray periodically.

Computers are very different. Choices in buying a computer include processor speed, memory size, hard drive size, monitor size, operating system, and games. You then have to decide how you’re going to connect to the Internet -- phone modem, cable modem, DSL. Once these details are worked out, you’re ready to power it up, get on-line, and start surfing the net, right? Well…not just yet…

Operating systems (Windows, Mac, Linux) and applications (Internet Explorer, Firefox, email, Tony Hawk, etc.) that are installed on your computer are extremely complex, often containing millions of lines of software instructions. Since humans are responsible for creating this software, and since humans make mistakes, software contains programming errors (software bugs). These bugs can cause problems actually using the application, but they can also introduce hidden security-related vulnerabilities. These hidden bugs can be exploited by crackers (referred to as hackers in the media) to take control of your computer, steal your personal stuff (credit card numbers, bank PIN, passwords), determine what web sites you like, and attempt to gain control over other computers on the network. When discovered, software companies release updates (patches) in order to repair these bugs.

To protect your information and information on computers connected to the network around you, it is extremely important that you apply these patches immediately after they are made available. To make this easier, some software companies have provided utilities to automate this process. For example, Apple has Software Update for Mac OS X. Similarly, Microsoft provides Automatic Updates for the Windows 2000 and XP operating systems, as well as Office Update for Microsoft Office applications. You need to consult the documentation for every program that you install so that you know how the company distributes its own software updates.

Updating your software is only one piece of the computer security puzzle. You must also ensure anti-virus software is installed and updated regularly so that it can detect new viruses. Using a firewall for your computer, such as the Windows Firewall, is also a necessity so that “hackers” can’t even see your computer on the network. And –- you knew this was coming -- NEVER share your passwords with anyone!

So, there you are. Computers are not toasters. You can’t just plug a computer in and forget about it; if you do, you will likely end up saying, “My computer is toast!”

– courtesy of Indiana University

Users can contact the IT Help Desk at 766-4357 (6-HELP), option 1, if they have any computer security questions or concerns. Alternatively, send an email message to and a Help Desk representative will respond.

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