Top Ten Computer Security Tips -Part 2
Article by Rick Leinecker, June 27, 2006

This is the second part of my top ten security recommendations. I've been talking about computer security now for several months, so I thought it was time for a compilation of the top ten computer security tips. You can use these columns as a roadmap to keep your computer safe.

Tip Number 6: Practice safe online shopping.

The best tool to combat those who would steal your personal information is known as a certificate. Certificates do two things: they verify the identity of the party with whom you're dealing, and they allow data between you and that party to be encrypted. The way you know that a web site has a certificate is the gold lock in the browser status bar. If you're looking at pages that have a valid certificate, a gold lock will appear. The web address will also start with https instead of http.

Be careful if you get a message that says a certificate has expired. This means one of two things: the web site has been careless and let their certificate expire (in which case you wouldn't do business with them online anyway), or you are victim to what's known as a "man in the middle" attack. In either case, run the other way - fast.

A very strong recommendation when shopping online is to use credit cards and not debit cards. Credit cards carry a substantial amount of protection against fraud. If someone uses your number without your authorization, credit card companies are quick to resolve the matter so that you aren't responsible. But debit cards rarely carry the same protection. If someone uses your debit card fraudulently, you will most likely have to bear the cost yourself.

Another strong recommendation is the same for online shopping as it is for normal "brick and mortar" shopping. Make sure the store appears legitimate.

Tip Number 7: Use a firewall.

You can protect your computer just as you can lock your home's windows. And the mechanism is a firewall. Some firewalls are software and some are hardware based.

The Windows XP operating system has a built in software firewall. I need to point out, though, that you must upgrade to Service Pack Two in order to have this feature. The Windows XP firewall can be on or off. For most people, on is the preferred state.

Many of the leading security suites such as Norton or McAfee have software firewalls. These are better than the free Windows XP firewall, and they work on just about any operating system.

There's a free firewall that you can download and install called Zone Alarm (http://www.zonelabs.com). It works well, and is similar to the free Windows XP firewall. The good thing is that it can be installed on older operating systems such as Windows 2000.

Tip Number 8: Encrypt wireless routers.

Lots of people have wireless routers at home; I know I do. There's nothing like surfing the Web while lying in my hammock. The potential problem is that anyone who is close who has a wireless laptop can tap into my network. I know that when I drive by my neighbor's house with my laptop on, it joins their network.

The way to fix this is, go into your wireless router's configuration screen. You can set it to encrypt the wireless signals between the computers and the router. You'll then have to set up each computer so that it knows it must communicate via encrypted signals. Your router will have instructions on how to perform both steps.

Tip Number 9: Beware Social Engineering.

Social engineering is the process (or art) of getting people to comply with your wishes. If you can enlist the help of a legitimate user to help you gain access to resources that are locked down within a secure computer, then you've done an end run around tight security measures. You have what you want without having to hack the computer.

A social engineering attack can have any number of desired outcomes. The attacker can be after financial data, company secrets, credit card information, and ways to damage a system. These are most of the same goals that traditional Internet hackers have.

There are some simple ways to mount a social engineering attack. The easiest method is to ask someone for something. The next method is a contrived situation in which you trick someone into giving you data files. One variation of the contrived situation goes something like this. A caller identifies himself as a network consultant. He needs your password to test out the new security measures that he implemented. When you give him your password, he now has access to all of the resources that you have access to.

It's no wonder that social engineering is such a common tool in the hacker's arsenal. Attackers could spend months trying to break into a system with conventional techniques, or they could be creative and trick you into giving them your password. Which is easier? Many times it's the social engineering route. And for that reason, you need to be extra careful.

Tip Number 10: Consider using Mozilla Firefox.

Mozilla Firefox (or just Firefox) is a Web browser that's more secure than Internet Explorer. I use it fairly often if I'm going to Web sites that I'm not sure about. The only downside is that it doesn't display all Web sites properly. For this reason I have both Internet Explorer and Firefox on my computers.

You can download Firefox free of charge from www.mozilla.com/firefox.

Wrapping Up

We teach quite a few computer security classes at RCC. If you're interested, please email me and I'll give you more details and answer your questions. You can see what courses are available at www.RockinghamCC.edu. I am also willing to come to businesses in Rockingham County and give seminars at no charge.

If you need help and don't know where to turn, I have a student who has a business that helps out folks in Rockingham County with computer problems. You can email him at clarkr@gmail.com.

Those are my top ten computer security tips.