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Remote access is, to define it simply, the ability to access your personal computer without the need to sit in front of it. Remote Desktop Connection is one of Windows’ most impressive features, but few people make use of it. It can be tricky to set up, which might put some people off, but the effort is worth it.
Once you have set up your remote access tool, you can open all of your computer’s files and programs remotely, i.e. from another device. You don’t even have to be within the same building. You can be on the other side of the world and, providing you have an Internet connection, use your computer as if it was right in front of you.
While remote access can come in handy in many situations, it does come with a word of caution. Just like you wouldn’t leave your front door wide open, you shouldn’t leave your computer’s remote access option unchecked. Take some time to educate yourself on the uses of remote access and the security behind it and you’ll be far better off in the long run.
Setting Up Remote Desktop Connection
Remote Desktop Connection is the built-in Windows utility for remote access and we’ll be focussing on it in this guide. While there are other remote access tools which offer advanced functionality, the one bundled with the operating system does a good enough job for our needs.
As a preliminary note, be aware that receiving remote desktop connections from this program can only be done on operating systems higher than Windows 7 Professional. Also, make sure that neither PC is set to sleep or hibernate because the link won’t be made if one system doesn’t have a live Internet connection.
To set up a remote access connection between two Windows PCs:
- On the PC that is the remote machine, search for Allow remote access to your computer and launch.
- Under Remote Desktop, select Allow connections from computers running any version of Remote Desktop (or from those with Network Level Authentication if you’re using anything beyond XP).
- Click Select Users and add users who you wish to have access – this is a security step that will ensure only those you give permission to will be able to connect.
- On your other PC, search for Remote Desktop Connection and launch. Either type in the name of the computer you wish to connect to (in the format of user, domain, workgroup) or the system’s static IP. You’re connected!
When & Where To Use Remote Access
Before we delve a bit deeper into the safety side of things, let’s talk application and the way that you can make use of remote access in your day-to-day life.
Accessing Your Own Files
Perhaps the most obvious use for remote access is logging into your own computer from another location. Imagine you’re on your way to work or school when you realise that the all-important file you need for that day is stuck in your Documents rather than in the cloud or on a memory stick. Problem solved with remote access: once you’re at your destination you can link to your computer and send the file across to yourself with ease. Beyond Remote Desktop Connection, there are also programs that have been specifically made to help you fetch files remotely.
Working From Anywhere
You could even take this a step further and use remote access to its full potential. Say you’ve got a lot of work to do, but want to get out of the house. Head to a coffee shop (or anywhere offering public WiFi) with a portable device and you can hook into your computer at home. You’ll be able to make use of your usual programs and settings and any changes to the system will be reflected immediately on your home machine. No need to worry about keeping two systems up to date!
Providing Tech Support For Family & Friends
If you know even a little bit about computers (and chances are you do!), it’s not uncommon to become the go-to techie for your family and friends. Those of us in this position know how difficult it can be to explain something to someone less technology proficient. Forgo answering questions like “what’s the task bar?” by taking remote control of their computer and literally showing them how to resolve a problem. They can watch as you move their cursor and carry out the necessary steps for them. All they have to do is sit back and let you do the work – and hopefully learn for next time, of course.
How To Safely Use Remote Access
Here’s the million dollar question: just exactly how safe is remote access? Essentially, it’s as safe as you make it and that depends on the program you’re using. The main thing to bear in mind when thinking about security is that you want to ensure those who are using remote access are those who you’ve granted permission to.
Permitting Specific Users
A good remote access program should always ask you if you want to let someone in first, but issues can arise here through setup. For example, Windows will automatically allow all administrators access to log on through remote access. This isn’t an issue if every admin account on your computer has a strong password, but what happens if down the line you create a new user account without a password? You’ve unknowingly opened yourself up to attackers sneaking in (bots scan open networks looking for vulnerabilities). As such, it’s always better to individually grant users access on a case-by-case basis.
To get better control over the users allowed access, press Windows Key + R to open Command Prompt and type secpol.msc and hit Enter. This will open your system’s Local Security Policy. Expand the Local Policies folder, click User Rights Assignment and double click Allow log on through Remote Desktop Services. From here you’ll be able to remove any groups or users that have been automatically added.
Some remote access programs will allow you to adjust the encryption level of your connection. Older operating systems might limit you to 40-bit encryption, but you should ideally set it as high as possible. This will protect anything that gets transmitted during the connection from prying eyes. It should be noted that this isn’t full end-to-end encryption, which can be achieved using IPSec (protocols for secure exchange of data) following connection.
Similar to the steps described above, click Windows Key + R, type ‘gpedit.msc’, and hit Enter. This will open the Local Group Policy Editor. Filter the folders down by Computer Policy > Administrative Templates > Windows Components > Remote Desktop Services > Remote Desktop Session Host > Security. Click Set client connection encryption level and then select a suitable level – again, we recommend using High Level, which in this case is 128-bit encryption.
Filtering down this far within the Local Security Policy also lets you adjust whether a password is required once connected, if a secure RPC connection is required, and more.
Along with the those more advanced steps, you can also help protect yourself within the Remote Desktop Connection utility itself. Launch it and then select the Advanced tab. From here you’ll be able to decide how the program should act if the server authentication fails. This is a step that helps determine that the system you’re connecting to is the right one. Should authentication fail you can choose to ignore it, be warned, or be warned and disconnected from the session. Either of the latter two options are best.
Educating On Standards
On a less technical level, but still equally as important, users need to be educated on the proper use and standards of remote access. In business it can be beneficial to distribute a procedure guide to employees to tell them the dos and don’ts: log out once finished (a good tool should time out automatically after lack of use), don’t allow unauthorised users into your machine and always password protect your accounts.
It’s still equally as important to educate on standards within a home environment, especially if there’ll be multiple users making use of remote access. It’s great if you’re knowledgeable on the security of it, but that becomes moot if other users aren’t and don’t use it responsibly.
Not Just Limited To Desktops
Remote access isn’t just something that is limited to desktops either. In an increasingly mobile world, it only makes sense that Microsoft have made it possible to use remote desktop on iOS and Android devices.
While cloud services like Dropbox, Drive and OneDrive are going to be better options if you’re just looking to share data while on the move, there’s no denying how powerful something like remote access is. It can be used in a multitude of different situations, both within home and business.
If you’re looking to get up and running with remote access, approach it with a security-first attitude. Make sure you’re using a program that has your protection in mind, otherwise you’re only opening yourself up to vulnerabilities and headache down the line.
How do you use remote access and has the security of it ever concerned you?