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11/25/2003 Archived Entry: "Shields Up!"

My favorite source for Information Technology news is The Register from the UK. Among other attractions is the sense of humor that occasionally surfaces, as in this farcical item about the US Patent Office allowing numbers to be patented.

More serious is the report that the recent Nachi worm successfully infected some automated teller machines. Fortunately the worm did not specifically target ATMs, and its propagation behavior tripped some security alarms. But this goes to show the vulnerability of computers on the network...even computers that aren't receiving email. This is because computers on the 'net expose a lot of "ports" for communication, and they can provide a point of attack for viruses.

Go now to the Gibson Research Corporation site and take the Shields UP! test. Be prepared for a rude awakening. If, like most people reading this blog, you are using Windows, the odds are that Shields UP! will report your machine is already exposing several vulnerabilities. These are not problems with your email program or browser; these are weaknesses in your computer's fundamental operating system and network software.

Fortunately, the GRC site is very good at explaining the problems, and in recommending solutions. Follow the links on the main Shields UP! page to learn what steps you should take to protect yourself. Many vulnerabilities can be fixed by switching off Windows options that you're not using (like File and Print Sharing).

Also, these days you really should have firewall software. A "firewall" is a program (or a computer) that sits between your computer and the Internet, and protects, closes, or conceals those vulnerable communication ports. You can buy firewall software for your Windows PC, but GRC has evaluated several and recommends the free Zone Alarm from Zone Labs. Follow the "download and buy" link; the Basic package is a free download. Windows XP includes firewall software; I don't know how good it is.

(A caveat: I haven't tried Zone Alarm. I use a physically distinct firewall computer running Linux, and Linux has very effective built-in firewall software. The downside is that a Linux firewall takes a bit more technical know-how to set up.)

A very big thanks to my friend Paul Rogers, who first tipped me to the Shields UP! site. Paul's Nerd Zone has lots of links to computer security info...and lots more links of interest to techies like me.

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