Your home computer is a popular target for intruders. Why? Because intruders want what you’ve stored there. They look for credit card numbers, bank account information, and anything else they can find. By stealing that information, intruders can use your money to buy themselves goods and services.
But it’s not just money-related information they’re after. Intruders also want your computer’s resources, meaning your hard disk space, your fast processor, and your Internet connection. They use these resources to attack other computers on the Internet. In fact, the more computers an intruder uses, the harder it is for law enforcement to figure out where the attack is really coming from. If intruders can’t be found, they can’t be stopped, and they can’t be prosecuted.
Why are intruders paying attention to home computers? Home computers are typically not very secure and are easy to break into. When combined with high-speed Internet connections that are always turned on, intruders can quickly find and then attack home computers. While intruders also attack home computers connected to the Internet through dial-in connections, high-speed connections (cable modems and DSL modems) are a favorite target.
No matter how a home computer is connected to the Internet, intruders’ attacks are often successful. Many home computer owners don’t realize that they need to pay attention to computer security. In the same way that you are responsible for having insurance when you drive a car, you need to also be responsible for your home computer’s security. This document explains how some parts of the Internet work and then describes tasks you can do to improve the security of your home computer system. The goal is to keep intruders and their programs off your computer.
How do intruders break into your computer? In some cases, they send you email with a virus. Reading that email activates the virus, creating an opening that intruders use to enter or access your computer. In other cases, they take advantage of a flaw or weakness in one of your computer’s programs – a vulnerability – to gain access.
Once they’re on your computer, they often install new programs that let them continue to use your computer – even after you plug the holes they used to get onto your computer in the first place. These backdoors are usually cleverly disguised so that they blend in with the other programs running on your computer.
The next section discusses concepts you need to know, especially trust. The main part of this document explains the specific issues that need your attention. There are examples of how to do some of these tasks to secure a Microsoft Windows 2000-based computer. We also provide checklists you can use to record information about the steps you have taken to secure your computer. Finally, a glossary defines many of the technical terms used in this document. Unless otherwise stated in the glossary, the definitions come from the Webopedia Online Dictionary for Computer and Internet Terms
Whether your computer runs Microsoft® Windows®, Apple’s Mac OS, LINUX, or something else, the issues are the same and will remain so as new versions of your system are released. The key is to understand the security-related problems that you need to think about and solve.
Thinking About Securing Your Home Computer
Before diving into the tasks you need to do to secure your home computer, let’s first think about the problem by relating it to something you already know how to do. In this way, you can apply your experience to this new area.
So, think of your computer as you would your house, your apartment, or your condo. What do you know about how that living space works, what do you routinely do to keep it secure, and what have you installed to improve its security? (We’ll use this “computer-is-like-a-house-and-the-things-in-it” analogy throughout, departing only a few times to make a point.)
For example, you know that if you have a loud conversation, folks outside your space can probably hear you. You also routinely lock the doors and close the windows when you leave, and you don’t give the keys to just anyone. Some of you may install a security system to complement your practices. All of these are part of living in your home.
Let’s now apply similar thinking to your home computer. Email, instant messaging, and most web traffic go across the Internet in the clear; that is, anyone who can capture that information can read it. These are things you ought to know. You should always select and use strong passwords and exercise due care when reading all email, especially the unsolicited variety. These are things you ought to do. Finally, you can add a firewall, an anti-virus program, patches, and file encryption to improve the level of security on your home computer, and we’ll call these things you ought to install.
The rest of this document describes the things you ought to know, do, and install to improve the security of your home computer.
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