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Brian Livingston
High-speed Internet access can be harmful to your health, and the health of your PC

IT'S GREAT TO SEE the price of high-speed access to Internet service providers coming down. With analog modems topping out at 56.6Kbps(and usually not achieving even that claimed rate), using a modem to surf the World Wide Web is a slow and painful experience.

Most large corporations, of course, now have high-speed access to the Internet through their LAN infrastructures. But employees who use the Internet to work or play at home usually obtain high-speed access through cable modems or some form of Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). Smaller businesses, which lack a specialized IT staff, may use nothing but cable and/or DSL for all of their office and residential access.

Unlike corporate LANs that have firewall protection, cable and DSL services routinely lack the most basic security features that keep out curious or malicious people. Once you hook up cable or DSL service, the kid down the street or the hacker on the other side of the world can log on to your PC and read, copy, or delete files right off your hard drive.

For example, employees using Microsoft's Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol to access an office system remotely may give away their passwords to hackers on the Internet without being aware of it.

Cable modems and DSL make this bad situation worse. PCs connected to the Internet via cable or DSL service tend to be "always on." They also use the same IP address for days or weeks at a time. This makes them an easy target for hackers.

In the past few weeks, I've interviewed experts in the business of protecting high-speed Internet users from the rest of the not-so-friendly cyber-world. The threats Internet users face are hair-raising. As white papers by Sonic Wall (, a maker of Internet security products, put it:

* Hackers no longer need to be skilled in attacking a network, as there are "hacker's helper" programs with point-and-click interfaces that are readily available to any user with an Internet connection.

* These "advances" in hacking technology make it easy for a dishonest or malicious individual to break into an organization's computers. Once in, a hacker could modify accounting, medical, or school records, or other data, and then leave, with the break-in and changes going undetected until it is too late.

* Technical aptitude is not required to launch a Denial of Service attack; all it takes is a readily available software program and a target. For example, WinNuke's sole function is to crash any unprotected Windows computer on the Internet. WinNuke crashes a PC by sending illegal data to any IP port that listens for data.

Despite these serious and widespread threats, cable and DSL providers are marketing their high-speed services to small businesses and home Internet users with little or no protection against attacks. When I've asked high-speed Internet access companies about their services, security never came up as an issue. When I specifically asked about security, most of these companies' representatives didn't have a clue what I was talking about.

The thought of mom-and-pop businesses being totally exposed to the destruction of their valuable data is frightening enough. Even worse, most corporations have employees who work on company documents at home after business hours -- and those documents may be wide open to anyone on the Internet who is persistent enough.

I interviewed a technical expert at one security company, WatchGuard Technologies (, who had a cable installer set up Internet access at his home. The expert found that someone within his cable subnetwork had logged on to his PC and was examining his files -- within the five minutes it took him to set up his firewall hardware.

It is time we consumers demand that immediate and effective security features be a standard part of any company's high-speed Internet access service. Installing high-speed connectivity without security is like selling a a high-performance vehicle without brakes.

I'll be writing more about this problem in future columns. Meanwhile, send me your horror stories and hopeful stories. Use "protection" as the subject of your e-mail.


Operating Systems

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