Q&A: Guarding Your Home Network

In Network Security for Dummies, Chey Cobb makes it easy for average people to understand how to safeguard their home computer networks. Cobb, formerly the technical security officer for the Defense Dept.'s National Reconnaissance Office, shared some tips with Senior Correspondent Larry Armstrong.

Q: How secure are home networks?

A: Most have such a minimal level of security they're practically Swiss cheese.

Q: What should you do when you get your new router home?

A: The very first thing is change the default password: Every hacker on the Web knows it. Also, turn off the remote administration feature so that changes can be made only from your computer. If it's a wireless router, turn on the encryption program.

Q: How serious is the threat?

A: Pretty darn serious. Your Quicken files and other intimate details are stored on your computer. When you shop on the Internet, your address and credit-card number are also kept in files. That information can be used to steal your identity. Even if no one is interested in stealing your stuff, your computer can be used to distribute illegal software, pornography, or attack other computers.

Q: How often does this happen to home users?

A: We don't have any hard data on individual attacks, but we have lots of data on attacks on businesses. In 1988, there were only six reported attacks, and so far this year there have been more than 82,000. Unfortunately, the consumer is often clueless, especially when it comes to computer viruses. I looked at my mother-in-law's computer and found 293 infected files in it. All she knew was that her computer was "acting funny." I installed a free antivirus program--AVG AntiVirus from www.grisoft.com--and cleaned it up.

Q: How can I prevent an attack?

A: I recommend using a free personal firewall, ZoneAlarm (zonelabs.com). It keeps out casual hackers. The other thing you can do is to use Windows Update to install critical security patches. You should do it about once a month.

Q: Who's the most vulnerable?

A: People with cable modems and DSL are most at risk. Their connections are always on, even when they're not at home. And people with wireless networks don't realize their neighbors can easily snoop on them.

Q: Are wired networks safer?

A: Well, your next-door neighbor isn't going to be able to get into your network by eavesdropping. But you still need a good password and an antivirus program and to use a personal firewall.

Q: What's a good way to choose a password?

A: I take a word, split it in two, and insert three numbers in the middle. A word like "summer" would become "sum295mer." It still can be cracked, but it's going to take three days and isn't worth the trouble to hackers. Then I write the password in code in my Rolodex. So my Rolodex card for Amazon.com would have 295 on it. I know what it means, but you wouldn't.

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