Awareness : Security Awareness Tips

Home Broadband: High Speed, but High Risk

High speed internet connections for home users, either by cable modem or DSL, are increasingly affordable and available. These connections allow us to shop, chat, read the news, do homework, watch videos, check business and personal email, pay bills and perform other banking transactions, all from the convenience of our home. These connections are on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But do these always-on connections mean your computer is always open to attack? Internet access is not a one-way mirror. If you can see out, anyone on the internet with the right programs and skills can see into your computer as well.

There are individuals who constantly scan networks looking for vulnerable computers. In the past these individuals may have been content with defacing a company’s website or breaking into a computer to prove their technical ability. Today, however, these individuals are more criminally focused with the aim of stealing data for financial gain.

Identity theft is now epidemic. Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, electronic tax returns – these pieces of information are the keys that tech-savvy criminals seek. In addition to stealing information, intruders can also install software that allows complete remote control of your computer. The intruder will then use your computer for other intrusions or attacks. Are you ready to explain why your computer was used to attack a University server, or worse, a Homeland Security computer system?

Steps to protect your broadband-connected computer:

  • The first level of always-on protection is the firewall. This is a hardware device or software designed to stop other computers on the Internet from accessing your computer without your permission. If you have a network at home, consider a dedicated firewall. In fact, many inexpensive DSL routers and wireless routers have limited firewall functionality built in, but remember to change the default administrator passwords. Windows XP and Vista, as well as Mac OS X, include firewall software as part of the operating system. At the very minimum, make sure it is on. Consult your broadband provider as they may have a preferred security solution.
  • Keep your antivirus, anti-spyware, firewall, and operating system up-to-date. The easiest and safest way is to set your computer to update the system automatically for critical updates (essential for Windows systems but also applicable to Macs). Don’t let your antivirus subscription run out! Set antivirus and anti-spyware software to update daily and run scans when you’re not using the computer. You may even be able to get protective software for free through your broadband company since they do not want you spreading viruses and other malware to other customers. Check to see what they offer! Alternatively the University does make antivirus and anti-spyware software available to its employees. Contact your IT Support group for details.
  • Encrypt sensitive data. If you keep sensitive information on your home computer, such as passwords, Social Security numbers, or financial records, consider either moving sensitive files to a removable drive (like a CD or flash drive) or keeping them encrypted. Of course, you should not be storing work-related sensitive information on your home computer.
  • Turn your computer off when not in use. You cannot be infected, hacked or hijacked if your computer is off! If you are not using your computer for an extended period, switch if off and conserve energy. It could lower your electric bill, but don’t let that be an excuse for not running the software you need to protect your computer while it’s on.

For a comprehensive look at home network security please see http://www.cert.org/tech_tips/home_networks.html

Posted June 6, 2007