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Invest in a Firewall to Protect your network

By Jeff Bloom & Rob Kay

The old timers are fond of reminding us that in the good old days of the Territory you never had to lock your doors. Now and then there might have been a theft but the odds of that were quite low and people thought nothing of leaving the front door wide open. Much in the same way, when we logged onto the Internet connections via dial up modems the chances of getting hacked were almost nil. However, with the growing popularity of always-on, broadband connectivity-both cable and DSL modems offer intruders free and easy access to the front door of your home computer.

According to Randy Williams, our in house expert at CTA/NRC, intrusions from hackers come with the territory when you purchase a broadband connection. "These people," said Randy "range from pimple-faced teenagers with too much time on their hands to professional hackers who may be after your credit card." Hackers can do all kinds of nasty things such as plant zombie-like programs on your hard drive or, completely obliterate your data. The truth is most home computers hooked up to DSL or cable modems are ripe for the picking.

We discovered this a few years ago by running our own tests. Randy conducted an online survey that probed cable and networks to gauge the security of computer users. In all he looked at 8000 cable modem users and 366 ADSL users in Oahu and in San Diego. The survey's results were startling. Of the more than 8000+ users sampled, he found more than 25% had no security measures in place. The machines we classified as vulnerable were literally open books to anyone with a computer.

If what we are saying is making you feel insecure, that's a healthy reaction. All PCs (including Macs) are vulnerable. According to Microsoft, their new Windows XP operating system has improved security features such as built in firewall support, file system encryption and many Internet Explorer enhancements. This will be on the shelves October 25th. (We'll have more details for you on XP security when we have the opportunity to test this new technology).

Get a Firewall

So what's the solution? We think a personal firewall is the way to go. (If you work for a large business, chances are you're already behind some kind of firewall. If not, you should be!). Essentially a firewall is what it sounds like: a protective gateway to prevent outsiders from accessing your data or controlling your box. A "personal firewall" is usually a software program but the better ones combine both hardware and software to form a protective layer between your computer and the outside world. Firewalls are not necessarily 100% effective but they certainly discourage most hackers.

The solution is to either purchase personal firewall software from a company such as Symantec, Network Associates, and Aladdin Knowledge Systems or, download a free version of ZoneAlarm (www.zonelabs.com) or BlackICE (www.blackice.com).

Randy Williams, our security pro, tells us that the quality of the free software for these types of programs can be satisfactory but it's better to pay for a commercial version where you also get support. For example, we like Zone-Alarm Pro 2.6, which costs $40 and can also be downloaded. The other "usual suspects" in the personal firewall business such as McAfee and Norton also sell comparable programs for around $50.

If you have a small office or several computers at home linked to one DSL or cable modem you also might consider hardware solution to protect the data on all your computers which in actuality is even more secure than a pure software solution. About the size of a large paperback book, they plug into your broadband connection and offer both security and network connections for your office or home computers. A couple of products we actually use include the Watchguard SOHO (www.watchguard.com) and the EtherFast 4-Port Cable/DSL Router from Linksys (www.linksys.com). Both are priced in the $100 range.

One last thing. If you're really concerned about the security of your system, check out Shield's Up! (www.grc.com). This is a free online website that allows you to run a simulated probe of your own computer. In short, it will let you know how vulnerable you really are. If you pass, you'll sleep better. In the meantime, if you're without a firewall-get one ASAP.

Jeff Bloom, SBA Small Business Person of the year, is the founder of Computer Training Academy/Network Resource Center, a computer education/consulting firm based in Honolulu. His contact is jeffb@cta.net or 839- 1200. Rob Kay is a Honolulu-based public relations practitioner who specializes in technology. He can be reached at rkay@pactechcom.com or 539-3627. Suggestions for column topics are welcomed.

Published September 21, 2001

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