Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

Use firewalls to foil online B&E artists

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #665  July  23- 29, 2002, High Tech Office column

In my neighbourhood, if there's an unlocked door then you can expect someone seeking anything valuable inside to open it.

If your computer is connected to the Internet, you're in the same situation. Random strangers are going to be checking to see whether there is anything valuable out in the open.

I've learned to lock my doors and I've learned to protect my computer behind a firewall -- hardware or software that acts as a barrier between my computer and the Internet.

You can quickly check whether your computer has the digital equivalent of its doors unlocked by surfing over to Gibsons Research Corporation  and running the free Shields Up tests. The good news is you may discover you're already protected without knowing it.

If you're connecting to the Net through a corporate local area network, you're probably OK. The members of your IT department are earning their pay and have a firewall installed for your protection.

If you're using Microsoft's new Windows XP, there's a built-in Internet connection firewall. Unfortunately, it's not turned on by default. Go to Settings, then Network Connections, select how you connect to the Net, click on its Properties, click Advanced, and choose the option to turn on Internet protection. (Couldn't they have made this a bit easier?)

And if your home or small office computer or network connects to a cable or DSL modem via a router, this may also offer a basic level of firewall protection. You may even have a dedicated hardware firewall, like the $199 Burnaby-built Alphashield.

Any of these sorts of firewalls should hide your computer from the random probes of hackers checking Net addresses for computers vulnerable for takeover. But you may still be open to a digital version of subversion. None of the firewalls mentioned, for instance, offer protection from software installed on your computer that may, without your knowledge, be opening your computer and its data.

Sounds paranoid, doesn't it? But this week alone, more than 2.6 million people downloaded the KaZaa Media Desktop from the popular Web site. Most didn't realize that by installing this popular program for sharing music, video, and software files, they were also installing another program, Brilliant, and giving permission to its creators, Altnet, to make use of their computers, via the Internet, for whatever purposes they choose. Alnet's annual report, filed with the SEC, claims the company plans "to create a private, secure, peer-to-peer network ... to leverage the processing, storage and distribution power of a peer-to-peer network comprised of tens of millions of users." In other words, sell your computer's processing power.

Instant messaging software (ICQ, Microsoft Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, and the like) has been popular with teens for several years. Its use is growing among business users as well, as a way to use the Internet to communicate with peers in real time. It can also be used to share files.

More than a few instant messenger users have found themselves receiving programs such as Back Orifice and Netbus from people on their "buddy lists." Both of these programs are examples of so-called Trojan horses, programs that, when installed, open up access to your PC to outsiders.

Finally, even a firewall is no protection at all against computer viruses delivered in e-mail attachments. You should still be running up-to-date anti-virus software, and be wary of opening unexpected e-mail attachments whether from strangers or friends and colleagues.

You may feel safe with a firewall locking your computer's front door, but e-mail viruses and software installed on your computer like Brilliant or Netbus could be leaving a window wide open. There is protection, however. More on this in two weeks, in BIV issue 667.

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