Detect, Protect, Dis-infect:
Consumers Online Face Wide Choices in Security
With new threats to computer
security and data integrity a regular feature
of the evening news, a panoply of products
that promise to detect, protect, and dis-infect
are being marketed to consumers. Intrusion
detection systems, firewalls and anti-virus
software are critical to online security,
but the Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s
consumer protection agency, says computer
users — from grade school kids to
grandparents — need to know exactly
why they need online security products and
what they’re buying.
Computers “talk” to each other
over the Internet by sending data through
their communications ports. If a port is
open, it “listens” for communications
from the Internet. A computer has thousands
of ports: which ones are open depends on
the software the computer is running. Hackers
can “eavesdrop” or scan the
ports to determine which are open and vulnerable
to unauthorized access.
An intrusion detection system (IDS) monitors
incoming Internet traffic, much like a security
camera “watches” your front
door to see who might be trying to come
in. When the IDS detects a suspicious pattern,
it sends an alert (and creates a record)
that an intruder may be trying to break
in to your computer. Some IDS alerts —
but not all — show a pop-up message
on your screen. An IDS alone cannot prevent
an unauthorized entry into your computer;
only a firewall can do that.
Firewalls block hackers’ access to
your computer by creating a barrier —
like a wall — between your ports and
the Internet that allows you to control
the data that comes and goes through your
ports. Your firewall protects your ports
even if you don’t have an IDS. Sometimes
a firewall is bundled with an IDS. If not,
and if you want an IDS, be sure it’s
compatible with your firewall.
Anti-virus software detects and deletes
viruses that are in your computer. Viruses
often attach themselves to your computer
through email attachments and floppy disks.
That means a firewall can’t catch
them. Similarly, an IDS won’t alert
you when a virus is attacking your computer.
Look for anti-virus software that recognizes
current viruses, as well as older ones;
that can effectively reverse the damage;
and that updates automatically.