There’s no question that data security is senior to physical security. The real value in a stolen laptop or PC isn’t in the hardware, it’s in the data. Sure, some druggie might steal your laptop and sell it for a fix, but the real danger lies in the thief who knows the value of the files that are stored on it. If it’s a personal laptop, the passwords to your online banking site, credit card numbers, Social Security number–probably everything about your identity–may be stored on it. If it’s a corporate laptop, depending on who you work for, there could be valuable customer information complete with credit card numbers or other proprietary information that a thief or corporate spy could capitalize on.
But physical security is only slightly less important. Don’t get complacent thinking that you’re OK just because your data is secure. It’s an expensive proposition to replace that data, so you must take steps to prevent theft of your hardware.
Encrypting your data is analogous to hiding it. So hide your laptop. Chain down your PC. Make it as difficult as possible for a thief to steal it. I keep my PC in a locked room when I’m not nearby and I maintain the attitude that someone’s waiting around the next corner to steal my laptop. So, it’s always either in a secure area or with me–and I mean within a couple of feet of me. I rarely leave it in my car and if for some reason I must, I lock it up in the trunk. I never leave it overnight in the office. Out of sight, out of mind. There are other physical precautions you can take as this Security Focus article outlines.
And let’s not forget about removable and external storage devices; hide them, too. For now, I leave you with Golden Rule #8: Physical security is almost as important as data security. Make it as difficult as possible through any physical means for a thief to steal your hardware. Rules of thumb: Lock it up and lock it down; out of sight, out of mind.
We frequently hear news of a laptop holding sensitive information having been stolen. Bad in itself, but the reports often note that the information was unencrypted. Doubly bad. The news rarely focuses on personal laptop thefts, however because there’s no news value in reporting the loss of Joe Citizen’s personal files; nothing of value there, they think. But Joe’s entire life savings may soon be wiped out if he has ever used that laptop for on-line banking or other financial transactions.
Recently, a friend of mine (who shall remain nameless for security reasons) had his laptop stolen out of his car. Fortunately, he had just purchased it and there was nothing of value on it, but there could have been–he’s an oil company executive. Modern thieves know that if they can get their hands on a computer holding sensitive information — particularly bank or credit card information — they can sell that computer for tens or hundreds of times the value of the hardware. The hardware is virtually worthless to them. From the thief’s point of view, any laptop sitting on the seat or floor of a decent car or a desktop PC in a middle class home office could belong to someone who has access to valuable information.
But, if the data is encrypted, the thief is out of luck.
I’ll cover physical security later. For now, I present Golden Rule #7: If you store sensitive information on a PC or laptop, even if it’s only personal information, encrypt the folders or drives where the information is stored and use an unguessable passphrase as the encryption key.
Some of these tips may very well be “everybody knows” types of things, but I find that these are often the things that get overlooked. That’s why I’m publishing them as golden rules. Take a look at the 2008 furor surrounding the cold boot attack against disk encryption . That was an “everbody knows,” too.
I get questions all the over at Ask the Geek about using a mail client’s message preview feature. Opinions vary, of course, but for this Geek, it’s a bad idea. In order to preview a message, it has to be opened or rendered by the HTML engine. Think about how a PC can be infected by a malicious web site and you’ll immediately understand the danger: The same malicious programs can exist in scripts in HTML messages. It’s a serious security risk.
Golden Rule #6: Always disable any message preview or auto-open features in your e-mail client. View messages as text-only until you know they are safe.
OK. So you’ve installed a NAT router, you’ve changed the default login and passsword, and you’ve used an unguessable password. You’ve done everything right so far; however, you still may be vulnerable–in fact, you probably are, even if you keep your operating system patched. In a 2007 Lockergnome posting, I wrote:
“To say nothing of Microsoft Windows, there are few, if any, application software packages that are free of security vulnerabilities. The SANS Institute publishes its Top 20 Internet Security Attack Targets on a regular basis and Secunia currently lists 14,043 pieces of software and operating systems with vulnerabilities.”
Not surprising, Secunia reports that as of November 27, 2009 , the above number has increase by almost 13,300:
“Our database currently includes 27,298 pieces of software and operating systems.”
It probably won’t surprise you that Microsoft leads the list, but that is by no means the only source of security vulnerabilities out there. The truth is, if you’re on the ‘Net and running any unpatched software, you’re a target; I can look at my firewall logs and identify what vulnerabilities are being targeted on my machine. Many of these holes have long since been patched and there’s no excuse for your not having patched them.
So much for the bad news. The good news is that most reputable software companies, when informed of a vulnerability by security researchers, promptly issue a software patch to fix it. These are widely available to the public for free download or through update features built into the software packages. Windows and other software packages allow you to enable automatic updates (which you should do).
Golden Rule #5: A vital part of PC security is keeping up with software patches for ALL of the software on your system, not just the operating system. Where it is available, use the software’s automatic updates feature.
Golden Rule #3 stressed the importance of changing the default user name and passwords of all configurable network devices. That’s good advice. But a weak password, one that is easily guessable, is almost as bad as no password. Far too many people use a password that’s obvious; i.e., given some basic information about the person, a determined hacker could easily guess it without too much effort.
Two clients I have serviced, both of which generate some serious confidential data, set up initial passwords for new users in the form password.2008 or changeme. (Thankfully, I recently convinced both of these clients to implement strong password policies!) I’ve been able to use basic observation and small talk to guess users’ passwords about 20% of the time. The first thing I try is a blank password–you’d be surprised how often that works, especially for home users. Next, I’ll try the user name, the spouse’s name or “password.” I may try a couple of other things, like “123456,” “asdfjkl;” or, believe it or not, “********.” Usually, though, I just ask them for the password and they give it to me.
According to Wikepedia there are several things many people use as passwords that results in their being predictable:
Repeated research has demonstrated that around 40% of user-chosen passwords are readily guessable because of the use of these patterns:
the word “password”, “passcode”, “admin” and their derivates
the user’s name or login name
the name of their significant other or another relative
their birthplace or date of birth
a pet’s name
automobile license plate number
a simple modification of one of the preceding, such as suffixing a digit or reversing the order of the letters.
So, if you want to protect your router and the other devices on your network, never use anything from the above list and apply Golden Rule #4: Use an unguessable, or difficult-to-guess password always.
Golden Rule #2 stressed having a NAT router–or router/firewall–between your PC and the Internet as a first line of defense. This is without question the first, most important security step, but it can be useless unless you have it properly configured; in fact, omitting one crucial first step can leave you even more vulnerable to attack that you would be without the device.
While the manufacturers try to patch such vulnerabilities, users often don’t apply the patches and even if they do, determine hackers often find other ways in. As recently as October, 2009, a blogger who stumbled across a vulnerability in more than 65,000 Time Warner Cable customer routers says the routers are still vulnerable to remote attack, despite claims by the company that it patched the routers. A report by Wired found that 45 percent of 2,729 publicly accessible Linksys routers still had a default password in place.
And that is precisely why you should put this on your list as Golden Rule #3: Always change the default user name and password of any configurable device you put on your home network.
Golden Rule #1 gives what I consider to be the most basic security maxim, one on which I base all of my security practices, so let me repeat: The best security measures are completely useless if you invite attackers into your PCs or networks.
Windows users will remember back before Windows XP Service Pack 2 was released that simply plugging your computer into your cable or DSL modem was almost certain to result in your being compromised in short order. (Who can forget the havoc that Sasser and other worms wreaked before Microsoft wised up and finally turned the firewall on by default?) Running naked with all ports open to the world is a gold-gilt invitation to every criminal and mischief maker on the Internet, and while running a software firewall is a good idea, it’s not nearly enough–crackers have known for some time how to disable the Window’s firewall.
Consider this: every IP address owned and/or issued by your Internet Service Provider, no matter who that may be, is constantly being targeted by hackers that are scanning the’Net for vulnerable systems, and worms, viruses and other malware that have already infected machines on the ‘Net. (As I write this, the IP address assigned to me by my cable Internet provider has been scanned or probed 46 times in the last hour; this goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.) I certainly don’t want my PC’s software firewall subjected to this kind of thing. Yet, most people, not knowing any better, plug their computer directly into the broadband modem. There is absolutely no reason to do this when there is an inexpensive, simple, yet effective first line of defense available at any big box electronics or office supply superstore–a router (Fig. 1).
Through the beauty of Network Address Translation (NAT), even the cheapest router becomes an effective hardware firewall, virtually making your PC invisible to the ‘Net. NAT Router Security Solutions by Steve Gibson of “Security Now!” explains NAT in detail. Here’s one of his illustrations from that article:
I must mention that except for one, easy configuration change that is absolutely essential, these simple devices work fine right out of the box. The average user can plug it in and not have to worry about a complicated setup process.
Golden Rule #2: A first, important step in securing your PC is to install and configure a NAT router.
Having worked in IT in various capacities since the early 1980’s, I’ve seen the need for security evolve from simple protection against viruses to the need for complex security policies designed to combat multiple attack vectors. These days, it takes constant vigilance to stay ahead of criminal hackers, to say nothing of terrorists; moreover, clueless users are often unwitting accomplices in security breaches. (See my article “Will You Be Used As a Weapon Against Your Own Country?“)
Today’s Internet is reminiscent of the Wild, Wild, West, only now it’s the Wild, Wild Web. Make a mistake, and you could be virtually dead before sundown, your identity stolen, your financial resources drained, your reputation ruined. Protecting yourself online seems like a daunting task, especially for the average home computer user; however, it’s not as hard as it seems, given some common sense and an understanding of basic security principles.
My goal for this eBook is to provide simple, sound advice and tips that will help you be more secure in your computing both at home and at the office. The first piece of advice I’ll give you is one I consider the most basic principle of computer security, the first Golden Rule of Computer Security: The best security measures are completely useless if you invite attackers into your PCs or networks.
It isn’t getting any better on the Wild, Wild Web, despite state and federal government attempts to arrest and prosecute those responsible for electronically-perpetrated criminal acts. Spyware and malware of all kinds are increasingly more stealthy and difficult to remove thanks to rootkit technology. With the advent of Web 2.0 and its emphasis on sharing and collaboration through such social networking websites and services as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and the like, web-based attacks are more prevalent than ever. These sites are based on active, dynamic content and rely on special programs that run in your web browser to perform their magic. These programs can be modified by malicious hackers to steal your passwords, bank account information and virtually anything stored on your computer.
New laws have done little to deter or eliminate spammers, largely because many of them aren’t located in the United States. Despite the few high profile cases in the news, the truth is that few spammers are ever caught. Considering studies that show some spam campaigns can produce as much as $3.5 million in a year, it’s easy to see why today the spam problem is worse than ever–some estimates place the amount of spam email at 80% to 90% of all emails sent.
These days, everyone is at risk of falling victim to cyber-crime, even those of us who know and practice computer security on a daily basis. The average person who goes to the local big box electronics store and buys a PC or laptop for use at home is often lulled into a false sense of security because their purchase is bundled with some “security suite” by some big-name company. They go home, take everything out of the box, plug it all in and usually end up getting infected with all kinds of nasty things in very short order.
I put this book together in hopes that it will make a difference, however small, in how people look at computing and the Internet. Maybe it will save someone from the hardships of financial loss caused by using a compromised PC to access their bank and credit card accounts. Maybe it will save someone from having to pay a big bill to a technician to clean up a severely infected computer. Maybe, just maybe, it will help take some of the profit out of spam and malware. One can always hope.
At the very least, I hope that you, Dear Reader, find this information useful and that it helps make your computing experience more enjoyable.
Note: Any discussion of security, cyber- or otherwise, must be based on the concept of a security baseline—the bare security essentials without which all else is futile. The articles that follow assume that a good baseline already exists, whether the computer is just out of the box, or has been running for awhile What’s a good PC security baseline? I propose these four bare security essentials: “…a NAT router; a good antivirus program; a good anti-malware program; and, a good software firewall.” These days antivirus, antimalware and a software firewall are usually combined into a single suite. I choose to align with Windows Secrets’ Security Baseline page: “…a hardware firewall that’s built into your [NAT] router, security software that guards against all types of malware threats, a software-update service to ensure that your applications are patched against the latest exploits, and a secure browser.”–KH
My new eBook, “14 Golden Rules of Computer Security” is almost complete and will be ready for downloading shortly. Written with the non-technical person in mind, the book is packed with proven, practical advice on how to stay safe on the Wild, Wild Web including bonus articles about creating strong, easy-to-remember passwords and email security tips. I give you tons of links to free and low-cost tools as well as special discounts for software and services by some of the best computer security companies in the business. It’s a must-have for every computer owner.