[an error occurred while processing this directive] FactsCanada.ca -- Friday Feature 2000-17Fr -- On-line Security and Privacy
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On-line Security and Privacy.

December 15, 2000.

This week Mike delves once more into the world of computers. While not a uniquely Canadian topic, computers are the one thing that we are sure all of our subscribers have in common, since this is a computer-based newsletter. Craig, who is my personal technical support department, says that the world can't get enough computer tips!


On-line Security and Privacy
By Michael Hora (mike@factscanada.ca)

You may not think so, but your home computer is a target. Just because you operate out of your home, and figure yourself and your computer to be small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, do not relax. There are people out there that want what you, and your little box of data, have.

The following words of warning and the pretty handy tips that accompany them are aimed at everyone, including the credit card-using on-line shopper -- security should always be foremost in your mind. Just because you don't use a credit card may well be reason enough for an invader to mess with your system. After all, we are not dealing with a high-ethic type of person here. A lot of so-called hackers are just malicious little punks whose existence revolves around making life miserable for people they can't see and probably envy. A lot of what they do is done "because they can". 'Nough said.

Most hackers use a PC-based platform. This is also, by the way, why most viruses aimed at the on-line world affect Windows users the most. Couple that with the "Great Satan" tag, as laid at Bill Gates' feet, and you get the picture as to why cyber punks can, and like to, target both you and your PC. So, because of these facts, most of the following is meant for PC users.

The first step in securing your workstation is to prevent file sharing. This is a simple matter: go into your control panel, then into network properties. Click on the "File and Print Sharing..." button, clear both check boxes in the dialog box that comes up, then click "OK" twice. By leaving them unchecked, access to your files and programs from sources (other than your own computer) is denied. If you must, for whatever reason, share files with someone else, make them read-only and secured under a good password. To do this, double-click on the "My Computer" icon on your desktop, navigate to (if necessary) and select the file, folder or printer that you want to share, click on file, then properties, then the Sharing tab. You should choose either no sharing, or sharing with read-only access. You have the option of password protection. I strongly advise the password option.

A strong password is your best line of defence. Choose one that has at least seven characters and is a combination of numbers and letters. Some people, like IBM's white-hat hacker Andrey Romanovskiy, use a combination that entails weaving metacharacters (words and numerals) into it. According to Romanovskiy, the most common password is "password". The second? "Password one". A defence is only as strong as its weakest link.

Don't use the same password for everything. Try to imagine the havoc someone could do if they got your bank card PIN and it opened up the door to your computer. You'd be hooped. The same applies to your driver's licence. Your mother's maiden name guards a lot of your personal data. Think about it. Would you leave the door open to your house?

What you should do though, is try and relate your passwords to some aspect of your personal life, the application it is being applied to, or data system it is being used to guard. Leave yourself a hint in your computer. Forgetting isn't such a stress-out then. But nothing too obvious.

Update, update and update. Most new software comes with an automatic update feature. It can then go and hunt on the Web for those downloads that, if used, can spell the difference between system integrity and failure. But, and this is a big-time but, this application poses some very real dangers. This time the danger is not to your system's operating features and, while it does originate in the outside world, you, albeit unknowingly, are the carrier. It wants to invade your privacy. It comes from within.

It is called Spyware.

It has been estimated that one third of all Web crawlers are convinced that the Web poses a real danger to their personal freedoms. Just the fact that fully 80 percent of computer users do not want, and have stated so, to give up information in exchange for better targeted marketing, shows how seriously the concept is being treated.

Spyware is the name given to a program that collects information from a database and then transmits it to its master. The most common parameters set for these types of intrusive data gatherers revolves around the user's shopping and surfing habits. It is done without your knowledge or your approval. The program worms its way around the guts of your computer, and like an electronic tapeworm, eats its way through the bowels of the information your fingers key in. The collected information goes back to its home base and is shared amongst advertisers and is then used to design ads that will better gain and maintain your attention.

Where do they come from?

They range from the almost benign "cookie", a relatively simple application, to the sophisticated and insidiously invasive data round up and retrieval programs. They get into your computer one of two ways. The first way sees them enter through a Net download. The second method has them coming directly off programs purchased at a store.

Cookies are small data packets that can perform small acts of service such as tailoring your computer to help you automatically fill out forms, or aid with your surfing habits. They do so by collecting data about your habits and then applying them to programs you are running. In short, they get to know your habits. If you, for instance, return to a site and the cookie was there with you when you first went there, it will then try to set up pretty much the same pathways you took before. If you don't want cookies, set your browser to reject their aid. Your browser can be set up to warn you when a cookie attempts to invade.

Spyware, or Adware, on the other hand, serves no one but its creator and operates clandestinely. The worst thing they do is to invade and rob you of your privacy.

There are ways to identify them, keep them out and get rid of the existing ones. The first line of defence is always a good firewall. A good firewall will not only tell you when one of these so-called Spyware/Adware programs is trying to get in, it will also tell you when one is trying to get out.

A good site to check out about advertising-supported software, is "The Spyware Infested Software List". It will tell you what is on certain products.

As for getting rid of these invaders, you should be aware that certain products, if obtained apparently for free, will no longer run once stripped of their encoding. They are usually, if part of a purchase, not so encoded. For specific applications, source the Web site of the company in question and bring up their privacy policy.

Should you wish to try to identify and disable this nasty little feature, try the Gibson Research Corporation Web site or the Lavasoft Ad-aware site. These simple and free tests allow you to check out your whole computer for the files. By following the simple instructions, you can manually delete the pests. Again, you may have problems in getting the actual program to run after doing so, but then again, there is a solution. You can upgrade to a non-Spyware version.

For a price.



On Sunday I profile Wilf Carter, talk about Mandarin oranges, tell you about Hudson Bay, update you on politically correct place names, make your mouth water with a delicious recipe, and outline the latest FactsCanada.ca giveaways.


I hope that you enjoy these computer pieces. As always we welcome your feedback -- good or bad. Please write to me at john@factscanada.ca and give me a piece of your mind.



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