Make your PC hacker-proof

Allan Soifer, an electronic mailing list administrator, didn't realise a distant hacker had been scanning his home PC for hours. The hacker had found a way in and needed only a password to access Soifer's files. So he pelted the machine with computer-generated words, hoping for a lucky match. Fortunately, neither of the hackers got the goods.

Jarrard escaped catastrophe because a frozen system and an error message the next morning told him something was wrong. He spent two weeks investigating the problem (and learning more than he wanted to know about hacking) before realising that he would have to back up his data files and reformat the hard drive to delete the hacker's self-replicating program. Finally, he installed personal firewall software to guard against future attacks.

Soifer was luckier. Before the attack, he had visited Shields Up (www.grc.com), a Web site dedicated to Internet security advice. Soifer followed its recommendation to down-load and install ZoneAlarm, a free per-sonal firewall program. ZoneAlarm alerted Soifer to the flood of incoming passwords and helped him identify the hacker's ISP. The ISP cut off the intruder's service, but the miscreant could likely open an account with another ISP and continue his misdeeds. And the police are unlikely to take action on any but the largest, most prominent computer crimes.

Hackers come in all flavours. Many are simply curious folks who want to find out how a program or system works. They may not do any harm, and some even provide a service by discovering programming bugs and helping fix them. But malicious or criminal hackers use their skills for devious purposes. Criminal hacking incidents can range from obnoxious to destructive. The latter category includes "denial-of-service" attacks - like those that shut down Internet sites eBay and Yahoo last February when hackers bombarded the sites with data and caused the companies' servers to crash. Is your PC likely to suffer such a massive attack? If you're an individual or small busi-ness user, probably not.

Hacking individual PCs remains a fairly rare phenomenon. Your chances of suffering some type of Internet vandalism are rising, however, especially if you have an uninterrupted, dedicated connection like DSL or cable modem. Fortunately, you can take some simple steps to protect yourself. For most Internet users, changing a few settings, installing a good personal firewall, maintaining updated antivirus software, and using common sense will provide reasonable protection for a small cost.

Play it safe

According to Murphy's Law, anything that can go wrong, will. People are putting more sensitive data (such as financial records) on their PCs, and sending other sensitive data (such as credit card numbers) over the Web. They're also switching from dial-up modem-based service to broadband connections, with continuous service and fixed IP addresses. Meanwhile, hackers are acquiring more devious software tools and putting more potential victims at risk. Hacking will inevitably increase. But the good news is, you can protect yourself now.

Many ports of entry

Close the Windows

Good fences make good neighbours

Things that go 'bump' on the Net

Compatability test

Sparring match

Best buys

Security checklist

A hacker's glossary

6 firewalls compared

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Jeff Sengstack

PC World
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