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How to Make Sure Your Computer is Updated

Keeping all your devices updated is key to good cybersecurity that is unfortunately often set aside or forgotten. Keeping tabs on your personal cybersecurity, or simply managing your safety in the digital realm, is apropos keeping your sensitive data safe and away from malicious entities, compromises, as well as stability and integrity issues. The cybersecurity community, as well as major software and hardware vendors, increasingly push computer systems and devices to always stay updated. This applies to operating system software, app or service software as well as firmware (industry software for hardware gear.)

There are several reasons for a higher level of awareness necessary to keep data safe. To put this notion into perspective by using a visual analogy, keeping software updated is akin to keeping your car serviced, or your engine oil topped up -without which your car will undoubtedly break down, furthermore possibly endangering others on the road. It is essentially a form of critical maintenance that has to take place regularly. The same goes for computer systems that do not receive these regular ‘maintenance’ or software updates, meaning that you are putting your devices, personal data, and even others on the network at risk when the health of your devices’ software is not up-to-scratch.

A system that is not updated can be vulnerable to cyber threats, system stability issues, integrity issues as well as compatibility issues resulting from a clash between older and newer software.

What is Software And What is a System Update?

Software is code written by software developers akin to an instruction handbook that hardware needs to perform instructions, as well as being an interactive interface between the user and the machine. One cannot function without the other. Without software, there would be no way to interact with a device such as a laptop, smartphone, tablet, or even an elevator for that matter. Every digital system out there that is not purely mechanical (like windows that roll up the old way or a lighter) runs on some form of software. At the most primitive level, this is called device firmware (base level software.)

In a computer system, the software is loaded into the RAM (Random Access Memory), and is processed by the CPU (processor) hardware components coming in two forms; system software and application software such as utilities, drivers, and the operating system. This is a two-way process where communication happens back and forward, called I/O or Input/Output. More sophisticated software also works with the GPU (graphics unit) and operates in the visual realm. Software code talks with hardware components that use the binary system as a language, operating by switching between 1s and 0s (for now until we get quantum) -all of which happens on a silicon circuit board (also called a motherboard.) The software that is written is compiled into binary for the CPU to understand. The basis of all of this is electrical signals. So, without software, there would be no Windows, iOS, Powerpoint, Adobe Photoshop, Gmail, or a web browser to access the internet with. The modern internet would not exist because computer servers could not talk to each other without software.

A software update (also referred to as a revision, patch, fix or release) is essentially software code that has been reworked by developers in order to address security issues like vulnerabilities and stability, or/and to add new features. Updates also exist to squash or iron out ‘bugs’ in the system (a term used by software developers.) Because technology is constantly evolving, so is software. For a machine that runs on software to continue to be safe, stable and compatible with other machines and systems it has to receive regular software update ‘tune-ups’ until the product has expired or been replaced (also known as end-of-life or EOL.) Updating software, most importantly, remedies security vulnerabilities that appear in every software out there and can be used by criminals in the digital realm for malicious purposes.

What Can Happen If You Do Not Update?

Now that we know what software and software updates are, we need to understand and appreciate just how important software updates are. Here is another analogy vis-a-vis perhaps the most important software element in a system, that is operating system software; you have a Macbook that runs the macOS operating system software, and you have not updated for months even though the system has prompted you to do so several times. In the meantime four issues have arisen; a software component within macOS has been hacked by cybercriminals, general system stability fixes have been released, compatibility issues with older software have been remediated and new features have been added. So, not only is all of your data on your Macbook in danger, your system is increasingly unstable, lacking the new features, and incompatible with certain older software. Here is another example; the Camera application on your Android smartphone has been compromised by cybercriminals, let’s say a fictional version known as V 8.9 has been compromised. This compromise can mean that hackers can now remotely access your camera via malicious code or other vectors. In the meantime, developers at Android have released V 9.0 where they have ‘patched’ the security hole, and the danger is gone.

The famous Equifax hack, that caused the exposure of hundreds of millions of personal records in the United States was sourced to an unpatched system, even though a fix for the vulnerability was available months before the attack happened. There are several other security oversight examples like Equifax, that resulted from unpatched software such as the 83 million compromised records in a JP Morgan Chase data breach, the 2013 Target hack that affected 110 million people, the Marriott breach that compromised 500 million records, even the US Voter Registry was compromised in this manner in 2017. Extreme examples include the Yahoo breach that compromised over 1 billion users to date. The consequences of these data breaches in some cases tend to linger for years, all because of a system that was not updated on time.

How to Ensure Your Systems Are Up-to-Date

Software developers are still human at this point, which means that errors and misses in the code will happen no matter how careful they are. Software code in the typical programs that we use on a daily basis can be thousands of pages long, so errors are not an impossible occurrence. Unfortunately, a small error can have a much larger knock-on effect and cybercriminals specialize in exploiting these flaws for their personal gain (or for the gain of their superiors.) The issue is that vulnerabilities that do lead to that domino effect will compromise not just one person, but countless computers, organizations, and worst of all sometimes government defenses. For the regular citizen, if you do not update your device software, this means you could be putting your family or friends at risk.

So, how do you ensure that you have all of your updates properly installed across your devices?

– Ensuring that automatic updates are always enabled if the feature is available
– Enabling all update notifications across your devices
– Make sure that you only install official and verified software on your devices
– In enterprise/industry/business applications, IT departments must be cyber aware

Finally, sticking to information security best practices is key to data security, such as; proper password management, use of cybersecurity tools, data backup hygiene, and of course keeping all software up-to-date.

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