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Create a hacker-and spy-proof account in OS X

Create a hacker-and spy-proof account in OS X
Photo courtesy of Maypalo.com

Q. I just saw your tip on administrator vs. standard accounts in Windows, and how the one you choose can affect your safety. Do Macs have something similar that I should know about?
-Chuck from Minneapolis, MN, listens to my weekly radio show on KTCN 1130 AM .

A. Excellent question, Chuck. I'm glad you're taking your security seriously. It's very important, even on Macs.

Yes, OS X does have multiple types of user accounts you can use. In fact, it has four: Administrator, Standard, Managed with Parental Controls and Sharing Only.

The one you choose can definitely affect your security. You'll also want to have multiple accounts for other computer users and guests.

That means you need to know what the account types do and how to create new ones.

Administrator accounts have full control of the computer. They can change any system settings, install software that affects all the users and manage options for all the users.

Standard accounts have a bit less control. They can install software in their own account and change settings for their own account. That's about it.

Managed with Parental Controls is just what it sounds like. It allows the administrator to set what apps and content the user can view. The administrator can also set time limits on how long the user can be on the computer.

Sharing Only isn't used much for home systems. It allows other computers on the network to view your shared files. I wouldn't worry about it.

For now, let's focus on administrator and standard accounts. The good news is that OS X administrator accounts are actually more secure than their Windows counterparts.

That's because when you want to make any change, you have enter the administrator password - even when you've already logged in. That makes it harder for an automated virus to install itself. It will need your permission, and you have a chance to catch it.

Of course, I still recommend that you use a standard account for your day-to-day use. Even if a hacker manages to snag your account password or break into your standard account, they won't be able to mess with other users or change sensitive system settings.

To create a new account, go to System Preferences and select Users & Groups. At the bottom left corner of window, click the lock icon and enter your administrator username and password.

Then click the + button to add a new user. Select a standard account and then enter your full name. You can stick with the account username that OS X makes up, or make up one of your own.

Enter a password for the account. Click here to learn how to create a strong one that's easy to remember. Do not make it the same as your administrator password!

Speaking of which, if you entered a weak administrator password when you originally set up the computer, now is a good time to make it stronger.

OS X will also ask you for a password hint. Follow my guidelines here for creating a strong security question so you don't make it too easy for someone to guess your password.

When you're done, click Create User.

There are some other options you can select. You can choose to let the user use an AppleID to share files or reset the account password. There are also options to let the user administrate the computer or enable parental controls. I wouldn't bother with any of these unless you know you need them.

You can follow these steps to create accounts for everyone using the computer. Trust me, keeping your information and settings separate is a good idea.

You can also set up a standard account specifically for guests who come over and want to use your computer. This keeps them from snooping on your files or accidentally messing up your system settings.

When you're done, click the lock icon in the Users & Groups window to prevent anyone else from making changes.

Then you can go to Apple>>Log Off and log in to your new account.

Of course, just having a standard account with a strong password doesn't do you any good if your computer has the wrong settings.

You might restart your computer and see that it boots straight to your account without asking for a password. This is an easy way for a hacker to break in.

Go to System Preferences>>Users & Groups and select Login Options. Click the lock icon and enter the administrator name and password. Then click Login Options and turn Automatic Login to Off.

You might have a laptop and use it in a public place. I would set it to ask for a password whenever the computer sleeps or the screensaver turns on.

That adds a bit of extra security if you step away from your computer and don't log off. You can do this in System Preferences>>Security & Privacy.

Macs are generally easy to use, but like any computer they do have some quirks. Here are some tips that will help you sort them out.

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