Cyberspace is increasingly a war zone. If it’s not a criminally minded hacker (there’s good ones out there too) trying to bring down your website or email server, there’ll be a spammer blasting tons of crap at you through common email service providers. There are some tools that can help us figure out the shades of gray into more discrete forms – I’m not going to cover all of them, just the ones I use most often.
Have you ever travelled or organized an event? Do you just jump right into the middle of the event/trip or do you plan for it, and ensure you’re covered for most risks? I’d wager you do the latter; so why is it that using the internet and working over the net are not considered with equal fore-thought and planning? After all the risks on the internet are usually minor, but the more major risks of identity theft and credit card fraud can be far worse than the worst car breakdown or wardrobe malfunction. Fortunately there are simple ways to keep a check on internet related risks, and I’ve covered 3 of the most common ones here.
1. Firewalls: There are a lot of there out there now; you get free software firewalls and then there’s Windows Firewall (which is pretty good too) – and of course hardware/external security appliances (like the excellent Sonicwall appliances I’ve worked with).
If you’ve noticed your internet suddenly slow down when you’re in office, and it stays slow for ~2-3 hours specially around lunchtime, chances are someone could be downloading stuff. When I say “stuff” – I mean videos, games – or stuff that’s not directly connected with office work. One of the most common methods to download these days is by the use of torrents, or via web services like rapidshare (Note: there are many legal uses for these services – if you do catch someone using these to download illegal stuff you should fire them first and then use the firewall :-)). However if just two people start large downloads, it’s likely to block off your internet to the point nobody else in the office can use it.
That’s where the firewall comes in. Many firewalls have what’s called a “QoS” – Quality of Service – that can allow you to throttle the rate at which a certain service runs. So while you may want official VOIP calls to run at full speed, large downloads and torrents could be throttled to use a 5% or 10% of the bandwidth.
Further, firewalls are able to detect the type of traffic flowing through the network, and can give you a pretty good idea of whether it’s someone trying to gain access to something they shouldn’t, or if someone’s watching a movie online, or downloading music or suchlike – and based on what you see you can block or throttle the activity. It’s also possible for the external appliance firewalls to detect spam sources and they can help block it and reduce the load on your email servers.
2. Spam filters: If you’re using Gmail, you probably could go directly to #3 – however if you’ve got a 3rd party mail server or manage your own email services, read on.
Spam is identified in 2 ways – blacklists and the email contents. Firewalls will help you with the blacklists aspect, but what about the contents of the email? The best way to check this automatically, using a powerful learning algorithm, is SpamAssassin. Most email servers have plugins for SpamAssassin and you can then configure the settings to filter out the kind of spam you see the most. Voila! Your private mailbox is as clean as, or cleaner than your Gmail account.
Client-side spam removal tools: If you use Outlook, you should probably look through client-side spam removal tools as well. These would double-check your mailbox and eliminate the residuals of any spam attack that made it through your filters.
3. Virus/Malware protection: In my book this is either AVG (the free edition) or Windows Defender. I’m starting to prefer Windows Defender over all of the others because of the ease of use and accuracy of detection. Also the fact that it doesn’t slow down my system as much as the Norton’s or Symantec products do means I can continue my work unimpeded.
Often while browsing websites or downloading useful documents/tools for our work, we may come across virus infected files that we just don’t want on our system. These anti-virus measures ensure that your system remains safe from infection.
Ideally you should also scan your system once a week to ensure you don’t have any unwelcome “friends” occupying space on your hard drive.
Important: Remember to always update your anti-virus/anti-malware and other software on your PC. If you have limited internet bandwidth and need to do this later – do it later but as much as possible do NOT delay! You never know when you’re the next target.
What happens if we don’t do this (points 1, 2, 3 and the ‘important’ note above)? The answer is not as simple as it looks. If there’s a virus/malware on your PC, chances are the malware is using your PC to attack others on the same network, or even others around the world via the internet. If there’s spam in your email service that looks appealing/genuine, you may end up on a phishing site and victim to an online fraud.
Vigilance is the key to ensure this doesn’t happen – however it’s not practical for a human to be vigilant 24/7 – which is where these tools come into play. The sooner you adopt and use tools that keep you, your identity and your computer safe, the better set you are to explore the world of the internet, with little or no risk.