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Cyberland Security: How to Keep Your System Safe

The recent wave of worm and virus attacks that infected hundreds of thousands of computers world wide shows how vulnerable our computer networks continue to be. While affecting less than one percent of computers in use--most of us were not impacted directly--these attacks caused billions of dollars in damages.

And, these are only the virus attacks we hear of. Thousands of similar attacks that don’t make the papers occur every year, harming our economy by network outages and costly repairs.

Cybersecurity is no longer just a concern of the corporate world or computer geeks. It must become a national priority, with consumers doing their part. You would never send your children to school without the proper immunizations, nor would you feel safe without putting on your seatbelt. But many people continue to run their computers in a manner that opens them to infection or worse: a cyber attack. When a cyber attack comes (that’s right, not if, but when), chances are it will be launched against the weakest link in the network: unprotected consumers.

Take the most recent worms as an example. A patch had been issued to fix the vulnerability for one of them in July. Yet this attack in August spread extremely rapidly because affected consumers failed to update their software. Hackers, and even terrorists, who intend to cause serious damage to our economy will take advantage of this lax consumer behavior. But it doesn’t have to be that easy for them.

Like it or not, consumers are on the front lines of a pending cyberwar. Hackers won’t be as likely to attack huge corporate networks that have spent billions on security. They will target the average consumer who is so excited to get that new computer set up and running, they rarely pay attention to security. 

By following a few simple steps, consumers can do a tremendous amount to decrease their risk of being a victim, or becoming a victim, whose computer is used to continue the spread of the virus.

Install and keep virus software up to date. Many new computers already come preloaded with a trial version of antivirus software from Norton or McAfee that can be renewed online. Off the shelf software may also be purchased at your local retailer. Once installed, be sure to update the software on a regular basis and schedule scans of your computer at least once a week. Both of these functions can be set up to automatically happen at a specific time each week, but your computer must be running for this to happen. If your software is out of date, you will miss the latest viruses. 

Activate or install a firewall. Microsoft XP comes with a firewall installed and there are several other good products, from Norton, McAfee and Zone Labs, available for purchase. A firewall monitors all incoming traffic to your computer and only lets in those communications which your computer trusts and needs. It “hides” your computer from hackers on the network by closing all the communication ports that you don’t use. Some advanced firewalls will stop your computer, if it is infected, from calling out to the internet and infecting others. 

Keep your software up to date. For both Windows and Mac users, activate the auto-update feature that automatically alerts you when security patches and software updates are available.  Once vulnerability is disclosed and a patch is offered, hackers often launch attacks that exploit the corrected problem because they know people are slow to update their computers. This is why the most recent round of viruses spread so rapidly.

When in doubt, DELETE.  Do not open email or email attachments from people you don’t know. Spam is increasingly being used to spread viruses in cute sounding attachments.  When opened these programs launch an attack on your computer and use applications like your email program to attack others. One of the most disruptive attacks to date was called the “Love” virus because the attacking email said “I love you.”  Millions of people apparently thought a complete stranger was in love with them.

Passwords are like toothbrushes. Use them daily. Change them regularly. And never lend yours to someone else.

Software security is a never ending battle that the technology industry is constantly fighting. By following a few simple steps, consumers can play a big role to insure that they do not become a victim of a cyber attack or an unwilling participant in spreading an attack to others. 

Jim Prendergast is the executive director of Americans for Technology Leadership.