Network security for your home
For a long time, network security was only something for corporate IT departments to worry about. The home user, with his limited connectivity, was somewhat immune. Other than worrying about downloading a virus, home users didn't have much to worry about on their slow dial-up and early single-line DSL connections. Then came truly high-speed connections, wired home networks for multiple computers and, finally, wireless connectivity. All of a sudden, the average home had several computers connected to a home network routed to the internet through some high-speed connection. What was different was that these networks were rarely secured. A fact that did not escape the world's hacking community. Realizing that all of those computers could be used as remote servers for their applications, they quickly went to work devising ways to use your computer for their purposes.
Hackers have been portrayed by Hollywood in the movies for years. In many cases, their feats of hacking bear little resemblance to the real world. These exotic portrayals of hackers effectively disguised the real thing in the eyes of most people. While hackers were portrayed as high profile international figures attacking governments, corporations and banks -- the real ones silently lurked and stole the identities and records of millions of people right from under their noses. They sent uncountable numbers of spam emails containing all sorts of scams and viruses from unsuspecting people's computers, effectively covering their tracks. Nobody sees these people as they do everything they can to remain unknown. Many times, these people are in countries on the other side of the world and, in some cases, even work for governments hostile to our interests.
Unlike the movies, nobody is going to walk into a coffee shop or computer store and log into a public computer and hack the world. But the person sitting in the corner of the cafe on their laptop or monitoring the local cable network from their house down the block could be stealing a lot of information. Multiply that with the number of public networks and the number of compromised home networks in the world and it becomes clear what a problem this is.
For every hack there is a, anti-hack. It is a game played between very smart people bent on doing damage and very smart people bent on stopping them. Software companies and security firms spend huge amounts of money developing ways to prevent the latest malicious attacks software hackers put out. Software is being put out by hackers all the time to enable people with much lesser skills to break into networks, steal data and keep the vicious cycle going. These days, tools to do just about anything are freely available on the internet for anyone to download. Even the most basic user can learn to use these tools and steal information and identities. Many times these "free" tools contain sophisticated code to report back to the original hacker where they are and what they see. By distributing the hacking tools freely the original programmer obtains a vast wealth of information without exposing themselves directly.
Since the "kid next door" can now download powerful hacking tools, it is entirely possible for them to break into their neighbors networks and get personal information, deposit viruses and even install key loggers which report back everything you do on your computer. The international jet setting hacker genius of the movies has been reduced to a 13 year old with an internet connection and the ability to do a web search for the tools he wants. But somewhere in the background lies a malicious mind that is much more dangerous than the kid next door and his childish pranks.
Here are some tips to ensure that your home network and traveling laptop are secure and that you don't become a victim or an unknowing dupe of a hacker on the other side of the world (or the other side of the room!):
If you use a wireless access point or router at home, you MUST set up strong encryption. Aside form neighbors stealing your bandwidth a much greater risk exists if you do not. People drive through neighborhoods looking for unsecured wireless networks. Their goal is to tap into those connections and send spam and all sorts of illegal content out without it tracing back to you. The last thing you need is the FBI knocking on your door asking you about the illegal stuff that was sent from your home internet connection. The only encryption worth using is what is called WPA. If your router is older and doesn't support it, go out and spend $50 and get yourself a new one that does. When enabling WPA, make sure you use a maximum length key and make that key as random as possible. Don't be tempted to use the older WEP encryption. Those guys driving around the neighborhoods like that as much as the totally unsecured networks. They can break that in a matter of minutes. Also, don't fall for the advice of so-called "local experts" who tell you to hide your wireless (SSID) id or set up your router to only respond to your devices MAC address. These "security" measures are completely useless and bypassed easily even by amateurs.
Your OS (Operating System):
Make sure your operating system is constantly updated. Modern systems do auto updates of security patches. If you are not going to be diligent at updating your system often, then enable the "auto update" process to keep your system up to date. If you really don't need it don't enable group networking features. In other words, if all the computers in your house are only pointed to the internet and you are not sharing information between you, then there is no reason to set up a network between these computers. Shutting down this feature increases security. Shared folders on your computer are also a possible entry point. Minimize or eliminate the use of shared folders on your computer. If you only infrequently move files form computer to computer, you're probably better off using a flash drive and copying them over than setting up an elaborate internal network that requires supervision to remain secure.
Your computer needs to be firewalled to prevent hackers from entering it through your internet connection. At the very least, you should implement the firewall that ships with your operating system. Several company's have firewall products that are very strong and secure. These days, combination products are available from the Virus software manufacturers that do both firewalling and virus protection. Putting a router with a good firewall behind your DSL or cable modem connection is a great idea and provides an extra layer of security. Even if you are not knowledgeable in setting up or tuning such devices, the default parameters of these devices are valuable.
Anti virus and Anti Spy:
Both email and web pages are used as tools to deliver malicious software to your computer. Having high quality, anti-virus and anti-spyware on your computer is essential. These programs are inexpensive and worth their weight in gold. Combination Virus, Spyware and Firewall software is available and is inexpensive. Don't compromise on your security for $50 a year.
Data outside your network:
Once your information leaves your secured house or your laptop, while you are away from the house other dangers exist. Cable internet service is usually set up on a shared basis with all of your neighbors. What this means it that any one of your neighbors, with easy-to-get tools, can see what everyone else is doing. When traveling and using public networks, the same holds true. See our article on these issues for more information.