Woman Pointing at Java ComputerTechnology such as computers and the Internet have the ability to make our lives easier and help us connect with others. However, most technology can be used for bad as well as good, and the high amount of harmful ways to use computers and the Internet highlight this fact.

A good example of this is the warnings about the use of the popular Java software. The actual software will not harm your computer, but hackers and ne’er-do-wells are exploiting the software to commit crimes like identity theft.

What is Java?

The term Java can refer to a few different concepts. First, Java is a form of programming language that helps developers to create programs and software. Java is used to write the instructions for a program. It allows developers to use high-level language rather than more complicated numeric codes. Java then converts the language to the numeric codes so computers can understand and follow it.

The term Java can also refer to the platform for developing applications. This means that Java is used to create programs and software for the everyday use of your computer that will work across different applications, such as Mac, Windows, and Linus operating systems.

The actual software that runs on your computer can also be referred to as Java, though it is more often referred to as the Java Runtime Environment or JRE. The Java Runtime Environment is necessary for many programs and software to operate fully on your electronics, such as your computer or cell phone.

Many applications use Java at some point. Common online applications include graphics and updates that display real-time data such as weather updates, ads, and stock tickers.

How could Java be Harmful?

In January 2013, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a statement to Americans warning of bugs in Java that were being exploited by hackers to steal proprietary information on users’ home computers in order to commit identity theft. The statement advised computer users to disable Java software for surfing the Internet.

An article in the Chicago Tribune asserted that hackers were using the bugs in Java to install spyware and other malicious programs on users’ home computers. The hacker software would then be able to steal banking information and other personal information in order to steal the user’s identity.

Hackers were also able to use the bugs to spread the malicious software by both malicious websites and those that were not originally focused on spreading the tools of a hacker’s trade. MoneyNews.com reported that directions for hacking Java were being sold online in “exploit packs” so that relatively novice hackers could take advantage of the issues with Java.

In response, Java’s Oracle Corp. released Java updates a few days after the Department of Homeland Security’s advisory, raising Java’s default security setting to high. However, experts still advised the masses to disable Java in Internet browsers.

According to the Chicago Tribune article, Java has become the most popular software for hackers to use to get into computers unlawfully. It contended that Java was the software of choice in half of all cyber attacks in 2012.

Oracle has since issued a Critical Patch Update in February 2013 and other non-security fixes that it had planned for release. Oracle released a statement that it will release another patch in April. Other updates and fixes are also planned through January 2014.

Incidentally, there were also reports of fake Java updates as a result of all of the hullaballoo. Instead of a Java update, the user who accepted such an update would actually be downloading—you guessed it—malicious software aimed at identity theft.

How can I Protect my Computer?

First things first. Update Java on your computer through the Oracle/Sun Microsystems website. If you get an update popup for Java that you feel is suspicious, go to the website to check for updates.

Then, because no one can say for sure that there aren’t other critical bugs that will crop up, you should probably disable Java in your Internet browser. Oracle has directions for disabling Java for all operating systems on its website. They also recommend uninstalling any old versions of Java you may have on your computer. Directions to do this can also be found on the Oracle website.

Because cyber hacking is not limited to just this one instance, it is a good time to reconsider your reliance on technology. The best way to protect your computer and yourself is to maintain updates for your systems and antivirus software and then try to limit any potential information a hacker might get from you.

Remove files from your computer that contain your Social Security number, banking information, and other important information you wouldn’t want hackers to have. Try to limit your use of credit cards online–use payment forms like Paypal or special one-time credit card numbers for online purchases offered by many banks.

Keep track of your bank and credit card accounts, and use a credit monitoring system to alert you if someone is using your identity to get credit. Report any suspicious activity to your bank, credit card, and credit reporting companies, and to the Federal Trade Commission.