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Ask Shak:
Web Surfers Stay safe with Firewalls, Anti Virus Software

Just a month or so ago hackers struck some of Microsoft Corp.'s most popular Web sites, hampering their service on and off for four days. More than anything else, this should underline how vulnerable we all are to mischief makers and even criminals. If one the most powerful and security conscious players in the New Economy has trouble in this department the question we must inevitably ask is "how safe is the average PBN reader?"

Though it's true that hackers are clearly gunning for Microsoft and other big entities this does not exempt any of us from hack attacks. What's clearly troubling is that the denial of service attack that disabled mighty Microsoft was no doubt launched unwittingly from home computers and possibly even small businesses that did not have proper security software.

When I say "unwittingly" I mean is that the computers that crippled the Microsoft servers included hundreds of machines scattered around the world that had been unknowingly infected with "alien" computer code. Commonly called a "zombie", this program lurks in a computer and is specifically designed to launch an attack remotely when a hacker gives the electronic signal. This in turn causes these multiple computers to bombard Microsoft's system with electronic requests. Although these attacks have been around for a while, they first gained widespread notoriety last year when a number of high-profile Web sites such as Amazon, eBay, Yahoo and CNN.com were pummeled and damaged to the tune of around estimated $1.7 billion.

The point we're making is that the computers that actually spit out the requests aimed at Microsoft, Amazon and the others were most likely coming from average home or business users that had no idea their boxes were infected. Randy Williams, a security pro at Computer Training Academy/Network Resource Center here in Honolulu, is not surprised. "When you come down to it, a hacker can intrude into most machines that haven't been secured and install 'zombie' or relay software whenever they want to," said Williams. "The most vulnerable boxes are typically those running some type of file sharing software. This includes many home computers connected to cable or DSL modems, and even corporate or university desktops which are not protected by a firewall.

"What concerns me," he said, "is that someone who's not aware of his or her vulnerability could be a sitting duck for hackers who might want to turn their machine into a zombie or steal credit card numbers or even worse. Millions of idle machines can mount an awesome offensive attack when they work in unison."

Security on the home Front

Nowadays hackers and virus writers have colluded so you need a firewall software and anti-virus software combination of to be totally protected. With that in mind I believe there are two items every computer user who has an "always on" DSL or Cable Modem connection needs to have:

1. Anti Virus Software
2. A (hardware or software) firewall which protects your box from intruders.

So let's repeat again. No one concerned about his or her data should be without virus protection software. With it you can easily look for garden variety viruses or find out if your machine have been turned into a zombie by scanning it with antivirus software, such as Symantec's Norton Internet Security or Network Associates' McAfee Antivirus. Both the Norton AntiVirus and the McAfee V Shield systems are easy to install. Both keep you protected from emerging viruses by allowing you to download the latest revisions of the software from the Internet. Cost for both programs is around $50. Another option is to visit McAfee.com Clinic -- a suite of four online services you can use to scan your PC for viruses, clean your hard drive, update your drivers, and offer customized advice. Just visit the web site, register and scan. It's less expensive than retail software (a year's subscription for $29.95). All the major software vendors are moving towards the subscription/ASP model because it's able to easily provide a great deal of useful information from a constantly updated database.

Firewalls are also available from the likes of McAfee or Symantec or, free of charge from Zonelabs (www.zonelabs.com) or NetworkIce (www.networkice.com). In addition to the free downloads, both companies also have more robust pay-for products which cost around $40. If you have a small network at home or office check out a hardware product called SOHO from Watchguard Technologies (www.watchguard.com) a Seattle-based company that offers Internet security products to small and medium-sized businesses. A hardware firewall is preferable to the software variety but will set you back $150 or more.

Shakil Ahmed is the founder of PDC Systems, a Honolulu computer and networking company established in 1991. Questions should be addressed to askshak@pdcsystems.com

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