Protecting home broadband connections

Protecting home broadband connections

Broadband connections are very good for the user, and a definite improvement from dial-up connections. For those of us who started out with dial-up connections at 300 baud, 56K connections sound like a great improvement, but we so soon become spoiled by cable and DSL connections that we soon forget our dial-up pasts. Additionally, many users love the ability to stay logged on, with e-mail checked every few minutes, without worrying about being charged for connect time.

The down side to all this is that our longer connection times lead to greater exposure to data – or at least data about our Internet habits – being stolen over the same connections that give us such pleasure. You can see how vulnerable your computer is by using the testing programs Test My Shields! and Probe My Ports! On Steve Gibson’s site (http://www.grc.com/). These two programs should be run periodically to make sure that newly installed programs have not compromised your security.

The most egregious invasion is someone capturing our IP address and being able to use the technology to directly steal information off our computers. In the days of dial-up, this was not much of an issue because we were never on for very long, and our IP address changed with each logon. How common is this? Well, we haven’t done an analysis of the hits on our home machines, but one of our firewalls says that 42,194 intrusions have been detected since the firewall was installed, of which 19,034 have been high-rated.

How do we deal with this? By using a firewall, which is software that allows you to specify what can and cannot access your computer. We use ZoneAlarm (available as freeware or in paid versions) from Zonelabs (http://www.zonelabs.com/). We specify the kind of access that programs can have, and the kind of access that web sites can have. We can also control cookies, and even mobile code, which is programs that run from within the web page you have loaded. We leave javascript on, and turn off everything else. If we need to change this for some particular page, we have that option.

It also contains a feature that allows us to stop all Internet traffic, in or out, and when we are not actively doing something we enable this lock. And if we forget? Why, we have it set up to lock down Internet access when our screen saver comes on, which means that after a few minutes of inactivity the system will secure itself from the outside world.

How do potential hackers know how to find you? Well, one way is that web sites you visit capture a lot of information on you, and some of these will display, to anyone that looks, a lot of information about you, including the IP address from which you accessed the site.

How do we deal with this? By using anonymous proxy servers, which are servers to which you send your request to see a site. Thus, when you type http://www.boyscouts.com/ into your browser and hit return, the browser does not send your request to the Boy Scouts web site. Rather, it sends it to the proxy server, which sends the request, gets the reply, and sends it to you. The IP address tracked will be that of the proxy server, not your IP address. The software that allows you to do this (we use Anonymity4 Proxy from http://www.inetprivacy.com/) can also do things like block cookies, and give out false information about what kind of browser you use, what language you use, and a host of other factors. It can also cycle through a list of proxy servers so your requests are not coming from one place. Oh, don’t forget to turn this off when doing updates: Software like Windows Update looks at the machine whose IP address has queried it, and will send back information on updates needed by the proxy server’s machine, not yours.

Using proxy servers can slow down response, which is why they tend to be used with broadband connections. You can test to find which of the many available work fastest with certain sites. Obviously, for some sites you may choose a direct connection.

To make matters worse, many programs you download contain bits of code to send back information on what you do with your computer. In fact, some websites automatically install programs to track what you are doing, and others install cookies that track your web activity. Not only do these share information without your knowledge, all these extra programs can suck up resources. Now, you may think that this doesn’t happen with “normal” web sites, but this is not so.

How do we deal with this kind of spyware? There are a number of programs that scan for spyware, prevent its installation, or block its effectiveness. AdAware (http://www.lavasoft.de/) is one of the old warhorses in detecting datamining, aggressive advertising, and tracking components. We use it, originally starting with the freeware version, finally upgrading to a paid version so we could enable AdWatch, a feature that does real-time tracking. We simultaneously use the freeware program SpyBot (http://security.kolla.de/), which is designed to catch hijackers, spyware, malware, dialers, and usage trackers. SpyBot has a very fast scan, and, the first time you run it, you will probably be horrified to discover several dozen spyware programs and data mining cookies on your machine. Finally, we also use the freeware program SpywareBlaster (http://www.javacoolsoftware.com/spywareblaster.html), a recommend companion to SpyBot, which is designed to prevent the installation of ActiveX-based spyware from webpages as well as blocking certain cookies. As an example of how widespread this phenomenon is, we note that SpywareBlaster alone has 512 items in its list!

If you install SpyBot (which we recommend you do), you may mysteriously find that you can’t changes settings in Internet Explorer. There is a check box on SpyBot’s Immunization page that says “Lock IE control panel against opening from within IE (current user). Un-checking this will allow you to make changes. Once you have made whatever changes are needed, you can check it again.

If you are concerned about the privacy of information on your computer, we urge you to be pro-active in defending your computer. While firewalls and anonymous proxy servers require some initial tinkering to meet your needs, we believe the effort is worth it.

Don’t forget that, as with anti-virus software, updates need to be checked-for on a regular basis (we do this daily). If you put in the software but do not keep it updated you will have a very false sense of security!

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