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Rethinking Security

I had the opportunity to spend some time with Don Codling, unit head for the FBI’s CyberCrime Division, talking about the state of computer and network security around the globe. It was an interesting conversation, not because there was any real news in the current trends but because the state of cybercrime makes it clear we have to re-think our entire approach to security.

I had the opportunity to spend some time with Don Codling, unit head for the FBI’s CyberCrime Division, talking about the state of computer and network security around the globe. It was an interesting conversation, not because there was any real news in the current trends but because the state of cybercrime makes it clear we have to re-think our entire approach to security.

To be honest, I’ve always treated computer security lightly. If you take a few sensible precautions, don’t cruise the porn sites on the Internet and use a good email filter, security software for a PC seemed more a way to separate fools from their money than anything else. To prove the point, a few years ago I ran a server wide open on the Internet without any protection at all for more than two years … without a single problem.

But things are different now.

It’s not just that organized crime and terrorist organizations have turned to online crimes to fund their operations. It is not even that a legion of hacker wannabees tries to find and exploit weaknesses in just about every piece of software released today. And it is not that computers are in some way more vulnerable than they used to be. The biggest problem is that there are more than two billion people online today. And by definition, at least half of these have subnormal tech skills. Or intelligence, for that matter.

Two billion people means that there are more people who will open any email attachment that features hearts or nude pictures of Brittany Spears, no matter who the email is from. More people who just have to play games on Facebook, no matter how many viruses infect them. More people who are clueless about the dangers to their cell phones and other computing devices. Two billion people who will log onto your accounting portal without a second thought about what they do to your system.

So it is time to re-think how we do security, building it around five simple steps.

1. Choose your Internet Service Providers for their filtering. In the good old days, ISPs were loathe to filter anything that came toward you, preferring instead to be a simple information pipeline and let you choose what you wanted to look at. Today, competition in the broadband marketplace means you can also choose an ISP that has a higher level of security. So the first step is to actually interview your service providers — not only the primary ISP, but your email and web hosting services if these are separate. While you’re at it, the accounting software vendor that provides you with your portal or online access should be interviewed for their security measures, as well.

2. Get some filtering software. The days when protection cost an arm and a leg are over. From Microsoft to AVG, there are free options for computers. In addition, there are other products we have discussed here in the past — like Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware and Spybot’s Search and Destroy — that are free and should be run on a weekly basis.

3. Turn off your computers at night. Old-think said that there was no need to turn off computers when you left for the day; that it was actually better to let them run. But “botnet trojans” that install on your machines and use them for criminal purposes generally do so in the middle of the night, when no one is using the machine and might notice the unusual level of activity. A machine that is turned off can’t be infected as easily.

4. Separate work and play. It may seem churlish to tell employees that they can’t check their Facebook page during work hours, or do a little shopping. But it’s the only way to stay safe. Make the policies, and make them stick. No software installed on any office machine unless approved. No visits to websites that are unnecessary for work. No kids using business machines … not even in the home office.

5. Check your computers regularly. Small businesses are favorite places for criminals to stick their data — credit card numbers, child pornography and other malware. They like small businesses because security is more lax and they can move their data in and out with ease. Do a sweep of every computer on a regular basis, looking for anything that does not belong, including personal files of employees that are not work related.

The days when we could be relaxed about computer security are over. And while the measures you need to take may seem time-consuming and unnecessary, they are preferable to a visit from law enforcement investigating cyber-crimes originating from your location. n


Reality Check

A compendium of ideas, products, rants and raves from the viewpoint of the author. Note that the author has no financial interests in any of the products mentioned. Feel free to disagree, or to share your ideas by sending them to

Internet Site of the Month: Market America ( One of the fastest-growing e-commerce sites on the planet, a “trusted partner” of the better business bureau, and shoppers get cash back when they shop at such major sites as and It’s also a more secure way to shop, since you know that the website has been vetted properly. Nope, I am not affiliated with them, but I do like their model for safe shopping online.

[Thumbs Up] – The Blackpad. Here’s competition for the iPad (and Samsung’s Galaxy) tablet computer from BlackBerry. Dubbed the Blackpad, it gives the “crackberry” addicts a pad of their own. An estimated 25 million units are in production, featuring a 7-inch display, two cameras (including one that can be used for video conferencing), Bluetooth and wi-fi capabilities. The down side? No 3G or 4G capability so far.

[Thumbs Down] – Email Retention Policies. Chances are good you don’t have any, and that can be a costly mistake. If you are sued, you will be compelled to produce ALL documents, including email, that may pertain to the case. Don’t have them, or can’t easily search them? You’ll pay dearly for this oversight.

[Thumbs Sideways] – Wiretapping Your Cell Phone. Legislation expected to be introduced into Congress next year would extend the wiretapping laws to computing devices and cell phones, as well as social networks. As with most security laws, this is both good news and bad. Do we protect terrorists and criminals or do we protect the privacy of consumers. Law enforcement agencies generally have a poor record when it comes to abusing wiretap laws, but it makes sense to update the laws we have for 21st Century technologies. This will bear some watching.

[Thumbs Down] – USB Technologies. Now that the super-fast Universal Serial Bus 3.0 devices are hitting the market, it’s time to stomp our feet and demand that USB become a flash-updateable technology. It is ridiculous that you can’t update a computer to a new USB standard without buying all-new hardware. Wires and connectors don’t change from one standard to the next, so why can’t we just download an update to get USB 3.0 on all ports?

[Thumbs Up] – Comcast’s Xfinity Online. While I am an old DirecTV guy, I am following with interest the moves being made by cable giant Comcast. The latest is an effort to update the company’s “TV Anywhere” strategy by offering cable content where you want to watch it — on TV, online or on a cell phone. It’s a good use of emerging technologies and will be interesting to watch as television services evolve.

See inside November 2010

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