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Articles: One Step To Safer Computing

As Mac users, we are greatly protected from some of the perils of the online world. To date, OS X has not suffered from any major Trojan, worm, Spyware, or virus. Vulnerabilities in OS X have been only theoretical exploits that are quickly patched, or are infections that relied on gross user error. I, as do many experts, discourage Mac owners from using an anti-virus program because they are unneeded. We all need to remember that change is the only constant, but by just adjusting one setting, you can make your Mac nearly impervious to any future online attack.

The bottom line is, to stay protected in the future, stop working from your Administrator account. Most Mac users don't know there are a least four levels of user accounts available in Mac OS X. The most powerful of those accounts is "root" and this account is all-powerful. Root users can do anything on an operating system including destroying it. That is a little too much power for any user to have, so Apple rightfully turns this account off and requires it to be activated in a less than straightforward way.

Root is good to know about, but you really don't need to use it because, chances are, you already have plenty of power by running as "Administrator." If you only have one user account on your Mac (usually the one set up when you first booted up the computer), then you are running as Administrator. Administrator user accounts are almost as powerful as Root and have just as much ability to cause damage. You should care about what level your user account is running at, because a malicious program can do almost anything you can do. Windows users suffer from this; often it is the cause of major PC problems. In the Windows world, users have to run as Administrator in order for all their software to work. Unlike the Mac OS, Windows users rarely have to enter the password in order to make changes or install software, good or bad. So a Windows user can install something without being asked for permission. The Mac user is better off because they are asked for the Administrator's password for almost everything they do in OS X.

Instead of potentially facing the problem Windows users have, you should run your user account at the lower level of "Standard," instead of Administrator. Standard user accounts own their account contents and settings within that account. They can't install or delete anything outside of the user account without using an Administrator's password. Now this may seem limiting, but it's not very different than what you are accustomed to. Unlike a "limited" user account you would use for young children, a standard account has full use of every application and feature on the computer. The only big difference is to make changes to the system or install new software, you will have to enter an administrator username and password.

Every system has to have one Administrator account to work properly. To make this user account change, it's easiest just to create a new Administrator account and downgrade your current one to Standard. Here is what you do in Mac OS 10.4, but other versions of Mac OS are similar. To start, open "System Preferences" and Click on "Accounts." You may need to click on the padlock icon in the lower right corner of the window. Enter your password and click OK. Above the padlock icon is a pair of "+" and "-" buttons. Click on the "+" to add a new account. A pop down menu will appear for you to enter in the new user's information. I name this account "Admin" because Administrator takes me too long to type, but if you are fast at typing feel free to do the whole thing. Next skip down to Password and enter a good password that you can remember. It should be different than your current user account password. Retype it in the "Verify" text field and then put a Password Hint in if you want. Please do not put your password in the Password Hint section; you would be shocked how many times I see that. The last step before you click the "Create Account" button is to put a check in the checkbox marked "Allow user to administer this computer."

Now you have two administrator accounts on your computer, so all that's left is to change your account to the Standard level. Click on your account listed in the left hand pane of the Accounts system preference window. Now click on the Password tab and look for the checkbox that says "Allow user to administer this computer." Uncheck it and you will be asked for an Administrator user name and password. Enter the user name and password for the account you just set up and click OK. You are now a Standard level user.

The only difference you will notice as a Standard level user is that you need to enter a username and password, where before you just needed to provide a password. Most everything other than that will be the same. It's free computer prevention, and it's a small price to pay for the added the security you'll have. But this step and any other protective measure will all go to waste if you are quick to enter your Administrator Password or do so without thinking. You should expect to give it when installing trusted software or changing a system setting but never enter it to look at an email/iChat attachment. Pay attention which application you give your Administrator password to. Is it friend or foe? Knowing the difference will prevent you from ever having to suffer the worst user experience: a computer packed full of Spyware, Trojans, worms, and viruses - experiences just like many Windows users have now.
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