Software Firewall

January 17, 2006

A Software Firewall is a necessary component of a secure Home Computer. Think of a firewall as a security guard within your computer. I highly suggest that you read, Install and Use a Firewall Program. from the Carnegie Mellon University, Internet security Coordination Center (CERT/CC).

For Microsoft Windows users, I recommend using a Software Firewall called Sygate Personal Firewall. Unfortunately, Symantec purchased Sygate and discontinued the product. I believe the saying is, “If you can’t beat em, buy em”. Luckily, you can still download the product from tucows.

Sygate Personal Firewall

Once the software is installed, you will have full control over communications coming in and more importantly, communications going out. Computer Worm and Trojan Horse programs will often times attempt to communicate with the outside world. A Software Firewall like Sygate Personal Firewall will warn you when it happens.

Once you have installed the software, please discuss your Software Firewall experience.

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Windows Update

January 16, 2006

Windows Update is a free service provided to owners of Microsoft Windows Operating Systems. The service offers a way to download and install security fixes and software improvements (often called patches) onto your home computer. If you are concerned about securing your home computer, you must familiarize yourself with this service.

Security updates from Microsoft are released on the second Tuesday of the month. Make sure your computer has the latest updates installed. You can set Windows Update to automatically install or notify you that updates are available. To configure your Windows XP Home Computer, choose Start Menu -> Control Panel -> Security Center -> Automatic Updates.

Window Update Control Panel

Windows Update Automatic Updates

Then, select the best option for your needs. I prefer the option that reads “Notify me but don’t automatically download or install them”. I want to know about all software that gets installed on my home computer. You can choose Automatic (recommended). However, I think you are granting someone else an enormous amount of trust.

Windows Update Settings

When you are notified that new updates are available, read about them, download them and install them. Do *not* leave your Home Computer unpatched.

Port Scan

January 14, 2006

When you leave your home you lock the doors and windows, right? Your Home Computer has somthing similar to doors and windows called Ports. These ports provide communication “doors” into and out of your computer. Its important that all of your computer’s ports are secure.

Run a Port Scan to check your computer now. Are you Secure, Closed, or Wide Open?

In The Clear

January 13, 2006

I Love You Note

Passing notes is a time-honored method of classroom communication. Suppose I want to send a message to a friend sitting on the far side of the room. I write my message on a folded piece of paper with my friends name on it and simply say, “Pass it on”. Magically, within seconds, the message is sent and received.

Unfortunately, the note passing system has a couple of flaws. First, I trust that nobody in the note passing chain will open the message and read it before passing it on. Second, the teacher may spot the note and intercept it. As punishment, the teacher may hold the note for ransom under threat of exposure. Worse, the private message will be read to the entire class.

Internet communications from your Home Computer function similar to note passing. An e-mail that you send to your friend, passes through many other computers before reaching its destination. The contents are in clear view of all computers that “pass” the message. What is thought to be a private message, certainly is not. For a technical description of how Internet messages are sent read about Packet Switching.

You should know that most e-mail and web browsing communications happen In The Clear. Know also, that you don’t know who may be intercepting and/or viewing your communications. For now, its enough to know this basic information. In the future, I hope you’ll think about the contents of a message before “Passing it on”.

Trust

January 12, 2006

Trust is defined as a “Firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing”. As you will learn, both computer software and the communication techniques employed by the Internet have a foundation based on trust.

My first computer, in 1980 was an Apple II+. The only software it ran were the programs I wrote. It was a secure computer because it couldn’t communicate with anything else. The millions of IBM Compatible PC’s sold before the Internet age were secure as well. Why? Theses computers could be trusted because they were isolated.

When the Internet was first built in the 1960’s it was composed of a few large, expensive computers. The U.S. Government project ARPANET evolved into today’s Internet from research done at UCLA, Stanford, University of California – Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah. The first Internet transmission was a login attempt between computers at UCLA and Stanford. The communication was safe and secure because nobody else was listening.

Much like a person living in a small town, home computers trust their surroundings. Doors are open and security is of little concern. Likewise, early Internet communication was secure because only a handful of trusted individuals and computers could make it work.

Today, the relatively inexpensive and fast computers combined with high speed Internet connections suddenly turn a small town into a global community. Anyone, anywhere in the world can communicate with your home computer instantaneously. Will you trust everyone who comes knocking on your door? I hope not.

Who and Why do they Intrude?

January 11, 2006

White Hat/Black Hat

Why would anyone want to break into my home computer? There’s nothing valuable on it. Just a bunch of family pictures, some games for the kids and my greeting card list. I suppose they might want to look at my checkbook register but it normally floats close to nothing. What’s the big deal?

I’ll give you three good reasons:

  • Your new Computer is Fast
  • Your DSL or Cable modem Connection is Fast
  • Your Home Computer is an Easy target.

A typical Home Computer represents a Fast and Easy target for an intruder. Sounds like the punch-line to a sleazy joke doesn’t it? Sorry to say, its no joke. The Black Hats are treating us like sleaze. Worse, most of us don’t know that we’re being used (see Home Computers A Tempting Target).

So how easy are we? According to Amit Yoran of computer security firm Riptech (recently purchased by symantec),

“If you’ve got a system out on the Net and it’s not patched, there’s a very high degree of likelihood that literally in a matter of hours you’ll be popped.”

Who are the Black Hats? This TechNewsWorld article entitled, Profile of a Virus Writer: Pride to Profit, explains how the geeky vandal of yesterday is transforming into an organized, profit-driven criminal.

There’s a saying, “Ignorance is Bliss”. Not knowing something is often more comfortable than knowing it. The more I learn about computer security, the more I contemplate that phrase. As you learn more, you may find yourself wondering the same thing.

Introduction to Securing your Home Computer

January 10, 2006

I’ve spent a good amount of time over the last few years fixing the computers of friends and family. Most of these systems had been taken over by the bad guys (often called Black Hats). When I informed the owners what had happened, they were shocked! “How could this have happened to me?” Guess what? They’re not alone. Read Online users not safe as they think.

What I’ve learned, is that securing a home computer is not an easy task. The modern desktop computer system is a very complex machine. It requires ongoing education, patience and work to keep these systems running clean. This blog attempts to simplify the security process by focusing on three primary areas:

  • What you should Know
  • What you should Do
  • What you should Install

For fun, I would like you to take the 5 minutes quiz, How Safe are You?. Post a comment with the quiz results so we can compare.