Locking down PCs

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Legal protection, patron privacy protection, and computer security are key concerns for libraries that provide public access computers (PACs). Providing access to computers and the Internet are now seen as an integral role for libraries, and along with that expanded role come a host of new threats and concerns. Providing this technology and protecting from the increasing level of threats is a constant battle.


Filtering is a contentious issue and is required for E-rate by CIPA. This requires filters to be installed on all PACs with Internet access with the ability to remove the filter for any patron over the age of 18. Filters can limit end user's exposure to undesirable content, but may also restrict their access to legitimate content. There are numerous commercial and opensource web-filtering programs available.

Computer Use Policy

The use of policies has been an important tool for libraries and apply to PACs as well. Library computer use policies should outline acceptable and unacceptable uses of both the equipment and the Internet access. The policy should also outline how the policy is enforced and include a disclaimer that the patron is using the computer and the Internet at their own risk. It is impossible to guarantee that patrons will be absolutely safe in using these PACs. Most PC Management solutions include a click-through Acceptable Use Policy to ensures that all Patrons agree to the library's terms of use.

Patron Privacy Protection

It is important that PACs contain security features designed to detect when users have left the station but forgotten to log out and ensure that all their personal files and information are automatically cleared from the station to protect the user's privacy. Libraries also need to control the time that patrons have access to computers to insure that all users get a fair chance to access these services. Some libraries may still use manual methods to do this, but many automated systems exist. For example, Envisionware's PCres (for windows systems) make this possible. Free and OSS options are available for both OSs:

  • GNU/Linux
  • Windows.

Securing PACs

Key Loggers

Computers should be physically secured for use. It is important to visually inspect the computers at regular intervals to make sure no devices have been attached to record keystrokes. These devices may look like part of the keyboard plug and can record keystrokes for up to 12 months and they are undetectable to scanning software.


Another consideration is the Basic Input/ Output Settings (BIOS) which boots the computer. The BIOS settings should be password protected and the boot order should start with the internal hard drive and if possible any other boot option should be removed. This is to prevent someone from booting from a CD, Floppy, or USB drive which could allow them to steal passwords, alter the computer settings or gain access to the network resources.

Turnkey Solutions

Several turnkey solutions are available based on GNU/Linux and OSS. These solutions free up staff from dealing with most of the maintenance tasks involved in securing PACs.

  • Userful DiscoveryStation.
  • Groovix.

OS Patches

All operating systems (OS) require frequent system updates to patch security holes discovered in the OS. For example, in Windows, running Windows update will insure that the system has the latest updates. Virtually all OSs have some type of automatic update for critical patches, but it wise to periodically run these services manually to insure that all software is patched. Libraries should be aware that Microsoft no longer supports versions of Windows before Windows 2000. This means that any systems running Windows 98, Windows ME or Windows NT are at risk to be compromised because Microsoft no longer provides patches for them.


One of the greatest threats that exist for operating systems (especially Windows) are those from malware, which includes viruses, worms and spyware. There are a number of commercial solutions, but there are also some free solutions available:

  • Grisoft AVG(A free version of commercial software)
  • ClamWin (Free/OSS)
  • SpyBot Search & Destroy (freeware)
  • Spyware Blaster (freeware)

Third Party Solutions

Many Commercial products exist to protect PACs by locking down the harddrive. These software solutions bring the system to a restored state after reboot. This is also helpful to protect the privacy of users because it clears out any personal information stored during their session.

  • Faronics DeepFreeze
  • Fortres 101 & Cleanslate

Free Tools for Windows

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (B&MGF) provided a free tools to help secure Windows computers for public use. Public Access Computing Security Tool. This was related to the computers granted to libraries. Though this tool is no longer supported, it still works well on older Windows operating systems like Windows 2000. Microsoft has recently released SteadyState(replacing Microsoft Shared which is a tool to secure Windows XP and Windows Vista systems for shared use.

  • Step by step howto for SteadyState
1.Un-install old security software (if applicable)
2.Install SteadyState as per instructions.
3.Start SteadyState
4.Set Computer Restrictions:
a)Privacy Settings: use all defaults
b)Security Settings: use defaults plus:deselect “Turn on the Welcome screen”
5.Create  user 'all' and remove all restrictions.
6.Give “all” administrative rights. 
a)Click Start > Control Panel > Users > All > Change account type
7.Click on Home in user control panel and “Change the way users log on and off”
a)remove Welcome Screen
8.Log in to 'all'
9.Set desktop background, silver theme, power settings and icons on desktop.
10.Run programs, MS Office apps and OpenOffice to insure installation and Adobe reader for license prompt.  Set search options for I.E.
11.Log out of “all” and log back into administrative account.
12.Run SteadyState.
13.Set restriction in SteadyState:
a)Windows Restriction : Select high and UNCHECK:
Start Menu > Remove the control panel icon use this to allow safe removal of USB devices
General Restrictions > Prevent Autoplay on CD / DVD
General Restrictions > Prevent access to Windows Explorer features...
this will allow the tabs to function in IE7.
General Restrictions > Remove CD and DVD burning
General Restrictions > Disable Notepad and Wordpad
General Restrictions > Prevent users from saving files to Desktop
Hide Drives > Local Disk (C:)
b)Feature Restrictions : high but unchecked:
Internet Explorer Restrictions > Prevent Printing
Menu Options > Remove Help
Toolbar Options > Size, Full Screen, Print and Third Party Extensions Buttons.
Microsoft Office Restrictions > Prevent use of visual basic...
this option will allow wizard templates to run, but could pose some risks.
c)Set home page to your library home page url.
14.Set session timers (this is to prevent the screen saver from showing.)
a)Log off after 700 minutes of use.
b)Log off after 700 minutes idle.  
15.Lock profile
17.Set disk protection to Remove all changes at restart.


  • Balas, Janet L. 2004. "Managing Public Access Computers and the People Who Use Them." Computers in Libraries 24, no. 6: 35-37.
  • Carter, Howard. 2002. "Misuse of Library Public Access Computers: Balancing Privacy, Accountability, and Security." Journal of Library Administration 36, no. 4: 29.
  • Huang, Phil. "HOW YOU CAN PROTECT PUBLIC ACCESS COMPUTERS and Their Users." Computers in Libraries. 27, no. 5. 16:5.
  • Sendze, Monique. 2006. "THE BATTLE TO SECURE OUR PUBLIC ACCESS COMPUTERS. (Cover story)." Computers in Libraries 26, no. 1: 10-16.