Dec. 11, 2005 at 11:00 AM ET
It's Christmas morning. There's small gifts piled all around the Christmas tree, but in the corner, there's that one BIG box. Mom and dad hold out – they make Johnny open it last, building the excitement even more. So when the paper is ripped away and a brand new PC is unveiled, there's yelps of joy.
Next, Johnny runs upstairs, kicks aside his old, sluggish computer, plugs the DSL line into the new hot-rod, Pentium 4 PC and starts playing online games with his friends.
And 20 minutes later, his PC has been hacked. Forget the 12 Days of Christmas. Well before the Christmas morning coffee is cold, Johnny's new computer is being used by Romanians to send spam and launch denial of service attacks.
Whenever a new computer is put online, it takes an average of only 20 minutes before computer hackers find it and probe it for vulnerabilities, according to antivirus firm Symantec. An unprotected PC is almost certain to eventually get hacked. And Christmas gift PCs that aren't set up properly are essentially unprotected PCs.
It sounds Grinch-like. When an adrenaline-spiked child wants to turn on a new toy, who can say no? Well, you can. You wouldn't give a child a bicycle without a helmet. And you shouldn't let your kid play with a new PC until you spend some time -- probably an hour or two -- setting up security software and making sure it's up to date.
You might think a brand new computer is safe. It's not. The truth is, you don't know how long that computer you bought for Johnny was sitting on the store shelf. Maybe one week -- maybe three months. There are literally hundreds of ways to hack three-month old software.
Everything can get stale: milk, cheese, old jokes. And yes, computer security software. In fact, it gets stale pretty fast. Unlike milk, computers do not have a "use by this date" stamp -- so you have to assume the computer is unsafe and act accordingly. It might sound like a hassle, but one to two hours spent on Christmas Day might save you endless hours of headaches later.
NBC: Watch a kid wreck the family computer
On Sunday's edition of Weekend Nightly News, NBC's Janet Shamlian visited with a teenager who reveals just how much of a mess he made of his family's computer. Fortunately, a neighbor, a helpful teen-ager, came to his rescue.
Not everyone is so lucky. A recent survey conducted by America Online and the National Cyber Security Alliance concluded that 81 percent of U.S. consumers lack basic Internet safety tools. While most consumers think they are safe online, they're not.
The holiday season is an important time to consider computer security. Christmas PC sales are exploding this season, up 35 percent over last year during Thanksgiving week, according to research firm by Current Analysis.
Much of the time, those consumers simply take their new PCs and connect them to the Internet without doing anything to make themselves safer. Some of the worst offenders are well-meaning parents giving the gift of computers, says Vincent Weafer, security expert at Symantec Corp. Last year, the number of zombie computers detected by the firm doubled in the weeks after Christmas, the firm found -- suggesting Christmas PCs were plugged in and quickly hacked.
"We determined that a significant amount of these were new machines that were Christmas gifts going online and not getting security patches onto them," Weafer said.
Microsoft Corp. has begun a new public awareness campaign around safer computing -- "Resolve to Protect Your PC in 2006." The firm has boiled down consumer instructions into four steps:
(Microsoft is a partner in MSNBC.com)
Much of this should be automatic. Starting this year, Microsoft's Windows XP shipped with its firewall turned on by default. The firm also offers auto-update, which will install security patches as needed -- consumers can choose this option when they initially turn on the computer as part of the "first-run" experience. Almost all PCs come with free trials of antivirus software. They should automatically be configured to download the latest definition files. And anti-spyware products are available from many Web sites, and many of them also offer automatic updates.
But that four-point plan still involves many opportunities to abort, cancel, or otherwise screw up. It's a lot to ask consumers. And that's a big reason why 4 in 5 Net users aren't safe online.
"People want to go ahead and do what it is they are trying to do and don't want to mess around with things," said Amy Roberts, a director of product management at Microsoft's security group. "To date, it has often been too complex."
The company has a Web site with tips on keeping computers safe at Microsoft.com. Many antivirus vendors also offer a free scan of PCs to see if they are infected.
Tip: Work like Santa's elves
It's also a lot to ask an excited kid with a new toy to wait on Christmas morning.
So Symantec offers this helpful tip: do it like Santa would. Every Christmas Eve, my parents would wait until the kids were nestled in bed before they brought in the tree, hung the ornaments, and set up the train set -- all to maintain the illusion that Santa had done the work. You can do the 21st Century version of this ruse.
Break open the PC box ahead of time and configure the system for safety. Do all those pesky installs out of site for the kid, when you'll have more patience. Your odds of doing it correctly should go up exponentially. So will your kids odds of staying away from hackers.
There is one other option, pointed out by an editor at MSNBC -- get a Mac! Macintosh computers aren't targeted by virus writers nearly as often; configuring them tends to be much brisker.
Either way, of course, there's much more you'll need to do to keep your kids safe online. You should keep the computer out of the bedroom, limit their time online, and talk to them frequently about who their online friends are and what kind of information they share over instant messages or blogs. For more on that topic, see Dateline's story about Internet predators, or read Kids, Blogs, and too much information.
But by taking an extra hour to properly configure a holiday PC gift, you'll be on your way to a much safer 12 days of Christmas, and 2006.