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February 2005

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A Network of Insecurity

by Glen Emerson Morris

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Based on a number of indications, 2005 will see a record number of spam emails, phishing attempts, Internet con games, viruses, trojans and other malicious Internet-based attacks. Security has never been one of the major considerations in the purchase of operating systems, either by most businesses or most consumers, but 2005 may be the year that changes that.

In short, there’s never been a more dangerous time to try to engage in e-commerce, either as a business or a consumer. Some are even beginning to wonder if the Internet can ever be made safe enough for business. Even the most optimistic projections suggest it will take significant improvements in technology, and in the behavior of both businesses and consumers, before things start getting better.

While the Internet has brought about an information revolution of unprecedented dimensions, it has also given criminals tools and opportunities they never had before. Bank robbery used to be a local phenomena, since bank robbers could only rob banks in their local area. Thanks to the Internet, a thief in Romania or Pakistan can empty the bank account of a person or business in Denver, and then spend the money online in Brazil or Australia. Fraudulent emails requesting confirmation of bank account information arrive in our Website’s mailbox daily now. Many are written in such poor English that it’s questionable whether the writer even knew English at all, let alone worked at an American bank.

It’s no exaggeration to say that just having a Website has become the equivalent of painting a bull’s-eye on your business, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing that can be done to improve the situation. There are a number of measures businesses can take to make the Internet safe for themselves and their customers. The first step can be simply developing a security policy and enforcing it. Federal law requires businesses on the Internet to have a well defined privacy policy, but no law requires most businesses to have a security policy, and many don’t.

While larger corporations frequently have detailed and highly enforced security policies, especially those with IT departments, small to mid-sized businesses frequently lack any security policies at all. As a result, security considerations may play little part in the operation of current equipment, or the purchase on new equipment. This is unfortunate, since even seemingly innocent purchasing decisions can put a business at risk.

Consider the issue of wireless keyboards. Though convenient, wireless keyboards present a new vulnerability to both home and business computer users. With the right equipment, hackers can record keystrokes made on a wireless keyboard from well outside a home or business. Cases have been reported of hackers cruising affluent neighborhoods in computer equipped cars and successfully recording credit card and other critical information using this technique

As a rule, computers on a wireless network have built-in encryption that make them relatively safe to use. However, wireless keyboards may not have any encryption built-in at all, especially the cheaper models. As a matter of policy businesses should not purchase wireless keyboards unless the keyboards have solid encryption features.

In addition to considering the security issues of new equipment, businesses should conduct regularly scheduled audits of their current systems and evaluate what risks they are subject to. As the skills of hackers evolve, computers and programs that were once considered relatively safe may, in time, prove too dangerous to continue using. A good example of this is the combination Internet Explorer and the Windows operating system.

Though they are the most commonly used browser and OS in the world, the vulnerability of IE and Windows to hackers is both legendary and serious cause for alarm. The problem has become so serious that some people have begun switching to Macs as their primary Internet surfing and email computers. Macs are far less vulnerable to virus and trojan attacks than Windows computers, and Apple’s small market share means few hackers even bother to attack Macs. Apple’s new under $500 Mac could prove very popular as an inexpensive email machine for people whose primary machine is a Windows system. At 6.5 inches square and only 2 inches high, the Mac Mini is small enough to fit unobtrusively on a desktop, and with the right switchbox, a person could easily use their Windows system’s monitor, mouse and keyboard.

It’s worth noting that concern about Windows security is also one of the reasons the Chinese government officially adopted Linux as its preferred operating system instead of Windows. The Chinese believe the US government has had Microsoft program a back door in the OS that would allow the US government to shut down all Chinese Windows systems on the Internet in case of war. This is more than just paranoia. There’s a high probability the Chinese are correct in their suspicion. (It is also not unreasonable to wonder what other features, including spyware, the US government may have persuaded Microsoft to include in Windows, and whether any of it is directed at monitoring the activities of Americans.)

One of the most compelling reasons for adopting the Linux operating system is that, being open source, it’s not going to contain any surprises, either from the government or from Microsoft.

Not surprisingly, Linux may be the best long term hope for security on the Internet. As a short term solution, Linux is still limited by a shortage of software and a difficulty of use problem, but it’s making progress on both fronts. It’s also encouraging Microsoft to be more competitive on security and price issues, and that can only be good for businesses and consumers.

Ultimately, security is a market driven issue. We will only have the security we demand. If we make security a major factor in purchasing decisions, we will get the security we need. If we do not, we will only get the security we deserve.

Glen Emerson Morris has worked as a technology consultant for Network Associates, Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius, and is the developer of the Advertising & Marketing Review Data CD.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

' keywords: Internet advertising, Internet marketing, business, advertising, Internet, marketing. For more advertising and marketing help, news, resources and information visit our Home Page.

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