And You Thought You Were Safe!

[This was originally published on Aviary Magazine and mirrored on]

The realm of computer security is not an isolated slice of life reserved for geeks and bitheads. Security is all inclusive, no longer a realm of obscure networks or sensitive databases full of nuclear codes and credit card numbers. I know this may be hard to swallow for many people as they haven’t given the matter serious thought. Stop reading for a minute and think about all things computerized in your life. Now consider which ones present potential security or privacy concerns to you. If you think any less than 90% or so present these problems, think again.

Some will cast this notion aside in favor of the argument that so many security concerns are so trivial that they make no real difference. Who cares if someone knows you visited a web site or purchased something online right? This argument can effectively be countered any number of ways as long as the reader is willing to to give them appropriate consideration. First, each of these small concerns add up. To use an old but familiar and fitting analogy, consider each privacy violation a brick. Put enough of these bricks together and you have a full blown wall. Second, at what point do they stop being small and trivial? If you convince yourself that each security vulnerability is small, they slowly begin to grow without you acknowledging it. Before long, they have turned into full blown risks that your mind associates with ‘trivial’.

So in a single day, where do you encounter these risks? Anytime you use technology. Before you say “But I don’t use it that much!”, think about how much technology surrounds your life. In many cases it has become so integrated that you often stop noticing it. Have a personal organizer like a Palm Pilot? Play games on a Sega Dreamcast? Send e-mail to friends or family via an on-line service? Have controlled access to your office via ‘strong’ token cards? These points of technology slowly add up and paint a bigger picture of rapidly degrading privacy while security vulnerabilities increase in number. All of the above, and we’ve barely touched serious computing as far as most people are concerned.

To anyone reading this that is passingly familiar with computer based news outlets like Wired, MSNBC and others, this is no doubt preaching to the choir. For those of you new to the net, I write this in hopes that you are fully aware just how vulnerable your computer setup and system can be. The disturbing trend emerging in people’s reactions to security is that perception says if you aren’t online, you are safe. I hate to break this to you, but connectivity has little to do with security and privacy. All it takes is a single ten second connection to the net and game over.

You boot up your computer and interface with the Operating System. Be it Windows NTWindows 95Solaris or any other platform, it is potentially vulnerable. When you open your browser, it too poses more risks than you can possibly imagine. Both Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator have had their fair share of problems. Even in seemingly safe applications like Microsoft Word lurks danger. Users connecting to the net via cable modem learned quickly that while their walls protected them from neighbor’s prying eyes, their modems certainly did not.

As with all articles on security, I try to present the problem and a solution for my readers. What can I possibly suggest to counter such an overwhelming amount of intrusions into your personal privacy and security? Awareness. Just understanding and realizing the concerns better equips you to battle the hoards of bad guys we always read about. Be proactive when using anything electronic, assess the risks, and proceed with caution. All joking aside, it may save you a lot of headache in the near future.

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