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ITRC Fact Sheet 119
Direct Connections to the Internet:
Protecting Yourself and Your Information Against Intruders

This fact sheet covers:

Today people use the Internet to see what movie is playing, shop, do homework, pay bills and for banking and financial transactions. For many of us, e-mail has not only taken the place of postal mail, but also replaces many telephone calls. There is an increasing group of Internet users who have direct connections to the Web through cable modem, T-1, or DSL, which means they are connected 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. For the most part, these types of connections are wonderful as the computer is always “on.” This offers convenience and speed for everyday use.

However, there are several drawbacks to being continuously hooked up to the internet. Some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are neglecting to tell you just how vulnerable you might be to being hacked or otherwise attacked while connected to the Internet. This constant connection allows for a greater risk of exposure of any personal information on your computer. This connection can also be exploited by unscrupulous outsiders to utilize your computer as a ghost station, i.e. storage of data that is not yours, sending out spam emails or forwarding viruses.

The Internet is just like the rest of the world. It is populated with the same kind of people society deals with on a daily basis, including criminals. Leaving your computer hooked up to a direct connection without firewall protection, either by software or hardware, is like leaving your house unlocked.

Once a thief gains access to your computer, they can gather all the personal or sensitive information you have stored on the hard drive unless your information is securely encrypted. Social Security Numbers, credit card numbers, bank account information, your budget, and your electronic tax returns - any and all are at risk. Identity theft is on the rise, and these pieces of information are the keys that imposters seek. The intruder could also gain complete control of your computer, using it for criminal intrusion of other computer systems, while leaving the evidence of that further intrusion pointing directly back at you.

HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF:  

When in doubt, ask them first before opening the attached file. Be aware that “free” programs or spam might also contain a troublesome file. If you download commercial games or other software from unknown shareware sources or “spam,” it’s just a matter of time before you fall victim to a Trojan or virus.

ADDITIONAL DEFINITIONS:

Worm: Like a virus, a worm is also a program that reproduces itself. Unlike a virus, however, a worm can spread itself automatically over the network from one computer to the next without attaching itself to another file. Typically worms do not destroy a computer or files. They just take advantage of automatic file sending and receiving features found on many computers. However, a worm can send a virus through your computer to others using this auto-send feature.

Firewall: A firewall is a device, either software or hardware driven, that enforces an access control policy between two networks. A computer connected to an Internet Provider, for instance, represents a bridging of two networks. A firewall can be thought of as a pair of guards: one blocks traffic and the other permits traffic. Some firewalls place a greater emphasis on blocking traffic, while others emphasize permitting traffic. The most important thing to recognize about a firewall is that it implements an access control policy. That means you have control over what program or website is allowed to mingle with your computer. Even if you are unsure as to what kind of access you want programs or websites to have to your computer, it is vital - if you are a cable modem or DSL user - that you employ a firewall. Most firewalls manufactured today come with pre-set recognitions of those popular programs that most folks tend to have on their computers. Therefore, they take much of the guesswork out of a user having to determine what programs should communicate via the Internet (and either send or receive information) or not. Even dial-up Internet users, if they intend to remain online for hours on end, should have some sort of firewall protection. For such folks, there are a good number of free firewall programs available to suit their needs.

Software-driven firewalls: A software firewall is okay for one computer connected to the web. Windows XP includes a limited firewall. You should consider whether or not this is sufficient protection. If not, replace it with a stronger firewall software program.

Hardware-driven firewalls: If you have a small home network (two or more computers) you should look at a hardware-based firewall. A hardware firewall is superior to software solutions because a computer (directly connected to the cable modem or DSL) running firewall or other protection software is still visible on the Internet. If, however, a hardware firewall is used, the computer(s) are shielded from direct connection to the Internet, and that makes it more difficult for an outsider to directly attack the computer. There are several good hardware solutions available. These devices provide a lot of protection for multiple computers for a relatively low cost.

Jumping on the direct connection bandwagon can be safe and fun as long as you protect yourself adequately from unwanted intruders by using either a software or hardware firewall, practicing safe techniques and keeping virus protection updated.

For information on the topic of peer-to-peer software, please refer to ITRC Solution SN 19 – File Sharing and Peer-to-Peer Software Safety

 

This fact sheet should not be used in lieu of legal advice. Any requests to reproduce this material, other than by individual victims for their own use, should be directed to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..