Computer security an oxymoron

Computer security exists only if the user f the computer knows that they need security and then only if they can keep ahead of the bad guys and that is not always possible. First by hiding (unless you are not connected to the internet at all) and being obscure you are not making yourself secure. An ostrich does not become invincible by sticking it’s head in the sand, and it won’t work for you either. Obscurity is not security!!! But that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do, your best defense is education.

Computer security seems to mean different things to different people so lets see what we can come up with.

If you read the news and listen to CNN or our politicians you would think the sky is falling that the world is about to come apart because hackers will shut down everything. They point at DDoS attacks on government web sites as proof and as really bad attacks. They also point to ‘identity theft’ and malware.

Lets first look at the different types of computer attacks. Starting with the the DDoS attacks.

A DDoS or Distributed Denial of Service attack. What this consists of is a bunch of computers either under the control of their users or by a remote user that create so much junk traffic to a web site that no legitimate users can connect to it. In no way does this make the information on the server more available for attackers (less accessible actually) and does not mean the remote users can control or damage the system. SO the DDoS is not a security threat. It may be a bad day for business or you might not be able to download a form or document but it’s not a security threat.

But most likely the computers used make the attack have had a security breach. They have been attacked by what is known as a worm. A worm is a type of program that by using a security hole in the operating system or web browser to be able to run on the target computer without permission of the user. Then it loads more malware (malicious software) such as a key logger to try to get the users passwords and eventually credit card numbers and also software for things like DDoS attacks. The problem is that these worms need to have a security hole to get onto the computers and if you update your computer or let it update itself (like MS Windows auto-update feature) then you will not be open to these types of attacks. Not doing this is mostly because people just don’t know they need to or they have a bootlegged copy of Windows.

We won’t go into blaming people here so assume that they just didn’t know any better. Update your OS people and you won’t get these. Also MS’s MRT will remove most if not all of these.

Another type of security attack is a virus. I know there are some of you who are saying, but worms are viruses. But they are not. A virus is a program that infects a already existing application and propagates by infecting other applications and when that app is run on another computer via a network or email. It hides in these existing applications, not stopping them from working but ensuring it runs first. Viruses are rare these days as worms are easier to make and the majority of malware authors are only looking to make money and so do the easiest thing possible.

These are not always easy to get rid of. But there are tools available, always have installed and running a legitimate antivirus application.

A close cousin of this is the Trojan horse. A malware application masquerading as a legitimate application. Recent specimens of this are the infamous vista-antivirus, antivirus2009/2008/2010 family of Trojans that people download from the web  either as a music or video codec and it then causes all kinds of trouble unless you send them money to “fix” it. Antivirus and most antimalware do not help with all of these, try as many as you can or wipe and reinstall your OS or a better OS if you don’t trust the one that got infected. Also please be careful downloading anything. You are the one that will be the weak link here.

The forth type of attack is direct attack by trying to gain entrance to a system directly. The ‘hacking’ that we all hear about. This a slow manual process that while there are tools available to help with it doesn’t result in any type of monetary reward so is mostly done by people to be able to brag about it OR is conducted by corporate or national types for information access (illegal of course.) This is the reason for firewalls. Firewalls are like locks. They keep out all the people who don’t know how to crack your lock. These attacks are rarely against home computers but you still need a firewall they same way you need a lock. Install and keep up to date a firewall on all of your computers. And you should have a network appliance between your home network and the internet.

Mostly these attacks are against companies and governments and mostly by companies and governments. And they happen all the time.

So at home you have mostly the malware issue to worry about but if you keep your system up too date you will be OK. Also have a legitimate antivirus running, avast or MacAfee or trendmicro or Norton. And have a firewall and network appliance like a DSL router. And stay away from Porn and pirate movie and music and you will be OK. I also recommend never do banking on-line. Not because you might get hacked but because your bank or it’s credit card supplier most certainly already has.

At work it’s not so easy. Given enough time and backing by a company or government any security can be broken. The only way to not be vulnerable to some degree is to not be connected. And with everything being connected for remote access or for the ability to get data remotely that means everything is becoming vulnerable to some extent. For the most critical things out there the only way to keep them secure is by removing access or if all you are doing is letting data out is to put something like a data gateway (non-ip or for real security a one way (by removing the inbound cable) fiber-optic.) And they still have the other problems of malware and viruses and worms and Trojan horses. But that is for next time.


About echlinm

Computer Programmer/Systems Analyst/Hacker S31
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