Is Your Information Safe?
He doesn't wear a stocking mask over his face, and he doesn't break a window to get into your house. He doesn't hold a gun to your head, nor does he ransack your personal possessions. Just the same he's a thief. Although this thief is one you'll not only never see, but you may not even realize right away that he's robbed you. The thief is a computer hacker and he "enters" your home via your computer, accessing personal information -- such as credit card numbers -- which he could then use without your knowledge -- at least until you get that next credit card statement. Richard Bernes, supervisor of the FBI's Hi-Tech squad in San Jose, California, calls the Internet "the unlocked window in cyberspace through which thieves crawl" (Erickson 1). There seems to be an unlimited potential for theft of credit card numbers, bank statements and other financial and personal information transmitted over the Internet.
It's hard to imagine that anyone in today's technologically oriented world could function without computers. Personal computers are linked to business computers and financial networks, and all are linked
together via the Internet or other networks. More than a hundred million electronic messages travel through cyberspace every day, and every piece of information stored in a computer is vulnerable to attack (Icove-Seger-VonStorch
1). Yesterday's bank robbers have become today's computer hackers. They can walk away from a computer crime with millions of virtual dollars (in the form of information they can use or sell for an enormous profit). Walking away is precisely what they do. The National Computer Crimes Squad estimates that 85-97 % of the time, theft of information from computers is not even detected (Icove-Seger-VonStorch 1).
Home computer users are vulnerable, not only for credit card information and login IDs, but also their files, disks, and other computer equipment and data, which are subject to attack. Even if this information is not confidential, having to reconstruct what has been destroyed by a hacker can take days (Icove-Seger-VonStorch 1). William Cheswick, a network-security specialist at AT&T Bell Labs, says the home computers that use the Internet are singularly vulnerable to attack. "The Internet is like a vault with a screen door on the back," says Cheswick. "I don't need jackhammers and atom
bombs to get in when I can walk in through the door" (Quittner 44).
The use of the Internet has become one of the most popular ways to communicate. It's easy, fun, and you don't have to leave your home to do it. For example, the advantage of not having to take the time to drive to the bank is so great that they never consider the fact that the information they store or transmit might not be safe. Many computer security professionals continue to speak out on how the lack of Internet security will result in a significant increase in computer fraud, and easier access to information previously considered private and confidential (Regan 26).
Gregory Regan, writing for Credit World, says that only certain types of tasks and features can be performed securely. Electronic banking is not one of them. "I would not recommend performing commercial business transactions," he advises "or sending confidential information across networks attached to the Internet" (26).
In the business world, computer security can be just as easily compromised. More than a third of major U.S. corporations reported doing business over the Internet -- up from 26 percent a year ago -- but a quarter of them say
they've suffered attempted break-ins and losses, either in stolen data or cash (Denning 08A).
Dr. Gregory E. Shannon, president of InfoStructure Services and Technologies Inc., says the need to improve computer security is essential. There are newly released computer tools intended to help keep the security of your PC information, but which can just as easily be accessed by computer hackers, as this information will be released as freeware (available, and free, to anyone) on the Internet (Cambridge 1). These freely distributed tools could make it far easier for hackers to break into systems. Presently, if a hacker is trying to break into a system, he has to keep probing a network for weaknesses. Before long, hackers will be able to point one of these freeware tools at a network and let it automatically probe for security holes, without any interaction from themselves (Cambridge 1). Hackers, it seems, have no trouble staying ahead of the computer security experts.
Online service providers, such as America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy, are effective in providing additional protection for computer information. First of all, you need to use a "secret password" -- a customer ID that is typed in when you log on to the network. Then you can only send information, and retrieve your own e-mail,
through your own user access. Sometimes the service itself is even locked out of certain information. CompuServe, for example, with its 800-plus private bulletin boards, can't even read what's on them without gaining prior permission from the company paying for the service (Flanagan 34).
Perhaps in an attempt to show how secure they are, these information services will give out very little information about security itself. They all take measures to protect private information, and give frequent warnings to
new users about the danger in giving out a password, but there is also danger in making the service easy to use for the general public -- anything that is made easy enough for the novice computer user would not present much of a challenge for a computer hacker. Still, there is a certain amount of protection in using a service provider -- doing so is roughly euqivalent to locking what might be an open door (Flanagan 34).
The latest weak spot that has been discovered is a flaw in the World Wide Web. The Web is the fastest-growing zone within the Internet, the area where most home computer users travel, as it's attractive and easy to use. According to an advisory issued on the Internet by a programmer in Germany, there is a "hole" in the software that runs most Web sites (Quittner 44). This entry point will provide an an intruder
with access to any and all information, allowing him to do anything the owners of the site can do. Network-security
specialist Cheswick points out that most of the Web sites use software that puts them at risk. With more and more home computer uses setting up their own home pages and Web sites, this is just one more way a hacker can gain access to personal information (Quittner 44).
Credit bureaus are aware of how financial information can be used or changed by computer hackers, which has a serious impact on their customers. Loans can be made with
false information (obtained by the hackers from an unsuspecting computer user's data base); and information can be changed for purposes of deceit, harassment or even blackmail. These occur daily in the financial services industry, and the use of Internet has only complicated how an organization or private individual keeps information private, confidential and, most importantly, correct (Regan 26).
Still, there are some measures that can be taken to help protect your information. If you use a virus protection program before downloading any files from the Internet, there is less of a chance a hacker can crack your system. Login passwords should be changed frequently (write
it down so you don't forget, but store it in a secure place), and they should never contain words or names that are easily guessed. It may be easier for you to remember your password if you use your son's name, but it's also easier for the hacker to detect it. Passwords should always be strictly private -- never tell anyone else what it is (Regan 26).
Evaluate products for their security features before you buy any tool to access the Internet or service providers. Remember, to change the default system password
-- the one you are initially given to set up the network on your computer (Regan 26).
Finally, and most importantly, it's best to realize that a computer system, regardless of the amount of precaution and protection you take, is never completely protected from outsiders. As protection software becomes more sophisticated, so do the hackers who want to break into your system. It's a good idea not to leave the silver on the dining table when you don't know for sure that a thief can't crawl through your window.
Cambridge Publishing Inc. "PC Security: Internet Security Tool to Deter Hackers." Cambridge Work-Group, (1995): Jan, pp 1.
Denning, Dorothy E. "Privacy takes another hit from new computer rules" USA Today, (1996): Dec 12, pp 08A.
Erickson, Jim. "Crime on the Internet A Growing Concern." Seattle Post Intelligencer, (1995): Nov 15, http://technoculture.mira.net.au/hypermail/0032.html
Flanagan, Patrick. "Demystifying the information highway." Management Review, (1994): May 1, pp 34.
Icove, David; Seger, Karl; VonStorch, William. "Fighting Computer Crime."http://www.pilgrim.umass.edu/pub/security/crime1.html
Quittner, Joshua. "Technology Cracks in the Net." Time, (1995): Feb 27, pp 44.
Regan, Gregory. "Securely accessing the Internet & the World Wide Web: Good or evil?", Credit World, v. 85, (1996): Oct 1, pp 26.
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