Friday, February 17, 2012

Interview: Hiawatha Bray discusses the security risks of using broadband and wireless Internet connections

Interview: Hiawatha Bray discusses the security risks of using broadband and wireless Internet connections
Host: MELISSA BLOCK Time: 9:00-10:00 PM
For many of us with home computers, broadband and wireless connections have changed the way we use the Internet at home. Anyone who's transitioned from dial-up will rejoice in high-speed access and the convenience of always being connected. But with these conveniences comes increased vulnerability to hacking, viruses and identity theft. Joining us to talk through just how big a risk there is and what we as computer users can do to protect ourselves is Boston Globe technology writer Hiawatha Bray.
Mr. HIAWATHA BRAY (The Boston Globe): Hello there.
BLOCK: First, let's talk a little bit about how many people are at risk. How many people are now using broadband or wireless connections?
Mr. BRAY: Well, it sort of snuck up on us. People were saying that broadband was catching on rather slowly in the US, and then we woke up one day and found that 40 million Americans have it already.
BLOCK: And this is 40 million people at home. You're not counting at work.
Mr. BRAY: That's right. That's right. And suddenly, these 40 million people--and many of them don't realize this. They turn these things on, they plug them in and suddenly they have to become network system administrators with a development of some kind of expertise in computer security that they've even had to think about before, and a lot of them still aren't. And that can be scary.
BLOCK: Why is this scary? What are the risks that users are facing?
Mr. BRAY: Well, everybody knows stories about how hackers in some distant city or some distant country break into the computers of a university and use that as the jumping-off point for attacking many other computers. They're able to do this partly because these computers are on high-speed connections and they're on all the time. It used to be that that wasn't the case with home Internet users. Now with broadband connections, you've got at least 40 million people in America who have a computer at their home that's connected at high speed to the Internet all the time. That makes them a prime target.
Then on top of that, a growing number of them are using wireless connections, so that they can use their laptop in any room of the house. That means anybody within about 300 feet of their home can just walk past with a laptop or even a handheld device and log on to their network.
BLOCK: Log on to their network and then--What could happen if they did?
Mr. BRAY: Well, it depends on just how careless they've been. I mean, for example, you have the possibility that they've got file sharing set up on their home computer. You can set it up so that another computer connected to it can read files on the machine. But if you don't have those file shares set up with a password, anybody who gets on the network can read those files, as well. You've got to be careful about that.
BLOCK: Well, what are some of the things, either through software or through hardware, that consumers should be paying attention to and using at home to protect themselves?
Mr. BRAY: Well, it's kind of funny because there are many things you can do, but all of a sudden you start giving people these long lists of things they have to remember. You end up having to do things like putting a firewall on all the machines. If you have multiple machines at home, you need to have multiple firewalls on each one. There are products that you can buy for about $40 that are firewall software. You can download for PCs--there's one that's free called ZoneAlarm. There are built-in firewalls in Microsoft Windows XP and in Apple's OS X for the Macintosh.
BLOCK: And the firewall is designed to do what exactly, Hiawatha?
Mr. BRAY: Well, a couple of things. First of all, it's designed to detect certain attempts to use resources on your computer from outside that people shouldn't be using. Like, there's a resource known as Telnet. A firewall might say, `Any messages that try to talk to Telnet are blocked, period.' Another thing that a good firewall does, by the way, is it stops your computer from talking to other people's because there are some viruses and worms that we've heard about that get onto your computer and then start sending out messages from your computer to attack other machines. Now a good firewall will see that and say, `Hey, there's this strange program on your machine that's trying to talk to somebody else. Don't let it do that.'
There are really absolutely essential things to have, but there are lots of other things, and I want to mention one just very briefly. A lot of people have these wireless devices. Every one of them comes out of the box with a predetermined password. Everybody out there in the world of computer bad guys knows what it is. If you've got a wireless router, first thing you do: put in your own password; otherwise, you're wide open.
BLOCK: You know, listening to this--I mean, high-speed and wireless connections are supposed to make our lives easier. It sounds like the way you're describing it people might be thinking, `You know, this just sounds like more work than it's worth.'
Mr. BRAY: Well, it does make your life easier. It also makes the lives of bad guys easier. All of a sudden, they don't have to plug into a wire to gain access to your network. They just have to turn on their own machine and start sniffing the air and picking up your data transmissions. It adds a new layer of insecurity, yeah.
BLOCK: Well, Hiawatha Bray, thanks very much.
Mr. BRAY: Hey, thank you. It's been fun.
BLOCK: Hiawatha Bray covers technology for The Boston Globe

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