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Issue #541- Mar 7 2000 Business in Vancouver

The High Tech Office: Protection is available from dreaded hackers

by Alan Zisman

The as yet unidentified hackers who attacked a number of well-known web sites this week (as I write) were successful in knocking their targets off the Internet for several hours. Their denial-of-service attacks, however, did not interfere with the contents of those sites, and did not compromise private information stored on those computers.

 Most large networks that are connected to the Internet are safe behind firewalls?a combination of hardware and software that limits what can come in from wide open Net outside. Most small businesses and home offices, however, are wide open to unauthorized outsiders.

This is not a big deal if you connect by a dial-up connection. You?re typically not on for very long, and in most cases, each time you connect, you?re given a different Internet Protocol address by your service provider?making you a transient, moving target not worth a hacker?s time.

But more and more of us are connecting via cable or high-speed phone-line services. That means your computer is always on the Internet even when you?re not actually using a browser or e-mail program. And with an Internet address that stays the same for a month or more at a time, you can be found by outsiders randomly probing for unprotected computers.

You can check your computers? vulnerabilities by logging onto Gibsons Research?s web site (http://grc.com) and clicking on the Shields Up link. If you don?t like the results, you may want to think about installing a personal firewall.

I?m using Symantec?s new Norton Internet Security 2000?an $89 product for Windows 95/98 systems that combines a firewall with a collection of other functions?what the company calls a ?one-stop defense against Internet threats?.

The box includes a copy of the company?s Norton AntiVirus 2000, for protection against viruses and other infections. Among other functions, scans e-mail attachments when they are received, and checks Microsoft Office documents as they are opened.

NIS 2000 can also be set to speed up your web access, blocking out annoying banner ads, pop-up windows, and similar screen clutter?the Web equivalent of zapping TV commercials from a recorded videotape. As well, home users may appreciate the ability to control children?s Internet access?limiting not just visits to inappropriate web sites, but also entire categories of applications?you can turn off Chat, for example, when your kids are online. Or block your kids from sending  specific categories of information?phone or Visa numbers, for example.

The core of the program, though is its firewall?which lets you use your computer on the Internet, while closing it off to outside access. In addition, it can be set to prevent Web servers from accessing information stored on your hard drive, even while you are visiting their Web pages.

With the default installation, however, not all security features are turned on. It definitely pays to go through the brief manual, and think about what options you?ll need. As well, it will take some time to set up different settings for different users?children, for example. And the program doesn?t automatically shift settings when someone new sits down at the computer?not even if they log into Windows as a different user?you may want to leave it running with your desired maximum settings, and then manually log onto it for a more relaxed set-up as desired.

With some tweaking, the program works well?with it in place, the Shields Up tests were unable to get past the firewall on my computer. And 15 year-old Joey complains that it blocks some places on the Web he wanted to get to?a good sign, as far as I?m concerned.

Like computer viruses, Internet security is ever-changing. Steve Gibson is constantly updating his Shields Up test to reflect new and improved ways of penetrating our computers. NIS 2000 tried to keep you protected from new perils?its Live Update feature can automatically connect you to Symantec?s server every week or so, making sure that your antivirus, Internet Security, and blocked Websites lists are up to date.

You can get all these functions separately, from a variety of sources. (And if you?re running Windows NT/2000 or a Mac, you?ll have to look elsewhere in any event). Vancouver-based Net Nanny, for example, offers parental-control over Web access. And the free Zone Alarm firewall (www.zonelabs.com) is well- regarded?and will work on Windows NT/2000 systems as well as Win 95/98. Mac users may want to try out the $90 shareware Doorstop (www.opendoor.com).



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan