Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Computer security: Evening the odds

Putting the final touches on computer security is an intentional misnomer — there’s no finality to computer security. It’s always been, and probably always will be, a continuous contest between those of us striving to protect our systems and our data and those attempting to either hack into our systems or simply cause random destruction.

This week, I’ll suggest some basic operating system approaches that you can take to make that contest at least an even proposition.

The Internet is now a nearly indispensable and highly useful part of nearly everyone’s life. Grandparents communicate with grandchildren, financial transactions and bill payments are completed with a few clicks, and e-mailing PDF files allows us to facilely communicate with clients whom we have never met. It allows me to file this column with the editor rather than driving into town on a snowy evening. However, Internet communications can be likened to walking in a beautiful, but snake-infested, jungle: you need to watch where you step.

Most importantly, train yourself, your employees and your families to be security conscious. Computer security is as much common sense and a security-conscious mindset as it is a specific program or piece of hardware.

Learn how to use your programs so you don’t accidently delete or overwrite data. Take a second and reflect before unthinkingly confirming a file delete or file overwrite dialog box.

Avoid the back alleys of computing that are likely to mug your data or privacy. Some types of Web sites, especially those that your teens and children might be tempted to frequent, are obvious places to contract computer viruses and other malicious software (often called “malware”). Other Internet traps include e-mails that solicit your assistance in supposed foreign money-laundering schemes, alleged employment solicitations, or other get-rich-quick schemes such as the ostensible request that you confirm an out-of-the blue award of a Wal-Mart card or some such to you.

Although most of us believe we are too smart to fall for such obvious scams, I’ve seen a fair number of supposedly sophisticated businesspeople fall for them. One peninsula businessperson was convicted of felony theft and jailed after raiding their trust account for hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest in that Internet scheme. Needless to say, the money transferred over the Internet was never recovered, and several clients whose trust account moneys were raided were also inadvertently scammed.

Other Internet sites look and sound like the real thing but are silently redirected to scammers. This practice is termed “phishing” (fishing) but can be readily countered by turning on the “phishing filter” in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 7 and by using some common sense.

NEVER give out personal and financial data in response to any sort of unsolicited e-mail. Be especially wary of unsolicited e-mails to the effect that your login data or financial and bank account information should be verified or updated. These are often crude, but sometimes effective, attempts to get enough information to victimize the unwary.

If you really must make changes, then do so by telephone to an independently verified telephone number to your bank’s service department or a known, good login site that you independently enter into your browser’s URL window. Be particularly careful about opening the attachments to unsolicited e-mail. This is a favored delivery mechanism for malicious payloads.

ALWAYS enable some sort of firewall program. Remember that Internet communication is a two-way street. Just as what goes up, comes down, what comes in can also go out. There’s a huge amount of rogue software roaming the Internet that can be used, and often is used, to silently plumb every corner of your computer and export all sorts of data to persons artfully hidden behind several layers of the Internet.

A firewall reduces the chance of someone beaming into your computer and exercising mind control over it. You can find the Windows firewall settings as a separate icon on the Windows Control Panel by clicking on Start, Settings, Control Panel, Windows Firewall. If you use the Internet to communicate between office and remote locations, then be sure that you set up what is termed a “virtual private network,” which uses a dedicated port for secure, encrypted two-way communication over the Internet.

Next week I’ll discuss more about basic operating system approaches, including downloading and installing security and operating system updates.

Local attorney Joseph Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and has been writing and lecturing about technology throughout the U.S. since 1990 for American Bar Association, Alaska Bar Association and private publications. He also owned a computer store in Soldotna between 1990 and 2000.

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