New partnership promotes PC user security

The US National Cyber Security Alliance, a new partnership of government agencies and private organizations and companies, announced its presence Thursday with a campaign aimed at helping home users and small businesses secure their computers and "do their part for homeland defense."

The campaign, which makes frequent reference to the heightened level of patriotism present in the United States after Sept. 11 and was founded in the wake of the attacks, looks to educate users about security threats and ways to address them, according to text posted on the Alliance's Web site. The site offers explanations of computer security terms, a checklist to make computers more secure and links to other security sites.

"Securing your personal computer plays a crucial role in protecting our nation's Internet infrastructure," reads the introductory paragraph on the Alliance's site. "It's the responsibility of every American to ensure that these cyber security needs are met."

To that end, the Alliance offers a top 10 security tips list to users. The list urges users to:

1. Use antivirus software and keep it updated.

2. Not open suspicious e-mails from known or unknown sources.

3. Use difficult-to-guess passwords.

4. Use firewalls.

5. Not use file sharing programs with strangers.

6. Disconnect their computers from the Internet when not using them.

7. Regularly back up their computers.

8. Stay up-to-date with security patches.

9. Check security settings twice a year. This year the dates recommended are April 7 and Oct. 27, which will be when most U.S. users change their clocks to switch to daylight-saving time and then standard time, respectively. The Alliance is calling these Cyber Security Days.

10. Make sure users know what to do if a computer becomes infected with a virus.

Though only two security checks per year may not seem like many, "two is better than none," according to Jimmy Kuo, a fellow with McAfee, a division of Network Associates Inc. Many people already check the batteries in their smoke detectors on these dates, Kuo said, so they'll already be in the habit of taking these sorts of steps.

Kuo, who has been involved with the Alliance since its early stages just after Sept. 11, said that the Alliance and its Web site will be promoted through press releases and stories in online and offline media. The Alliance won't be buying any ads within the next month or so, according to a member of the Alliance who requested anonymity, and instead will leave promotional duties up to the members.

For Alliance member America Online Inc., those promotions will take the form of donated banner ads, links, and small stories spread throughout its Web sites and online service, according to Tatiana Gau, senior vice president of integrity assurance at AOL. Banner ads will also appear across the entire network of AOL Time Warner Inc. Web sites, she said.

The Alliance is not funded by its members, nor is there any prospect of that, according to the member who requested anonymity. Despite this, Kuo expects that the initiative will succeed.

"The biggest difference here (as opposed to other security programs) is that it's being driven out of the executive (branch) of the United States of America," Kuo said. The President's Critical Infrastructure Protection Board, along with a number of other government agencies, are closely involved, Kuo noted.

And other security initiatives are forthcoming from the group, according to the member of the Alliance who asked for anonymity.

"This is just the first of many campaigns that the Alliance hopes to take on," the member said.

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