Invisible Computing

Inside the Internet.
Oct. 25 2001 3:47 PM

Invisible Computing

How to keep your private business private on the Internet.

 

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Your personal information sure has been in the news a lot recently. Well, maybe not yours in particular, but hardly a week goes by without some sort of horror story about private data becoming anything but private. With all the scare in the air you might be convinced to bury your head—and your computer—in the sand. Don't. There are some things you should worry about and some you really shouldn't. This guide will help you separate the two and help you preserve your privacy online.

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Accept that you're already screwed. You can't help it—a loss of privacy is a fact of modern life, a result of the comforts and conveniences that define it. The files on your computer were completely safe until you decided to connect it to a public network, i.e., the Internet. Well, now you've done it. Computers are just too complex to protect in a completely foolproof manner. It doesn't matter if you're running Windows, Mac OS, or Linux—someone out there is finding a new way to break in. And even if your computer is safe, you are leaving behind you a trail of information about your credit card purchases, your Web surfing, your phone number, and your income. Someone somewhere knows something about you that you'd rather they didn't. My advice: Adopt a Zenlike acceptance of your fate.

If you can do that, determine what level of privacy you're prepared to battle for. One Microsoft alumnus was rumored to be so fanatic about his privacy that he paid cash or cashier's check for everything, took the bus everywhere so he didn't need a driver's license, and wouldn't give his Social Security number to anyone. Assuming you don't want to completely disappear, I've devised a slew of security suggestions from which you can pick and choose to match your temperament. And, to give you a perspective of what's reasonable, I've indicated what security steps I take.

Beware the Internet and practice safe computing. Any computer connected to the Internet is at risk, especially one connected to a cable modem, a DSL line, or even a regular phone line for hours at a stretch. Such permanent connections give hackers extra time to find your computer and attack it. To foil them, download the latest security updates for your operating system and browser. (Windows updates, Apple updates, and Redhat Linux are all free and easy to install, as are upgrades for Microsoft Internet Explorer and the latest iterations of Netscape Communicator, Version 6.01 and Version 4.78.)

Because computer viruses and worms can gather information from your computer and send it elsewhere, disinfect your computer regularly. Here's a good roundup of scanning and virus protection software and strategies. You should update your virus software every week and monitor this Web site for news about emerging viruses that your virus software might not be able to handle. Protect your computer from attack with software and/or hardware firewalls. Go here to learn more about firewalls.

After you've updated and cleansed your system and installed a firewall, practice safe computing! Namely, never open an e-mail attachment from a stranger that has the extensions ".exe" or ".vbs." If an acquaintance sends them, make sure they're not infected with a virus by saving and scanning them with your virus software. The same goes for files downloaded from the Web. As a rule, make sure any software you download comes from a reputable source before opening it. Everybody should take all these steps.

Also, turn off your operating system's "file-sharing" capacity so that nobody on your network can get a peek at the private files on your hard drive. This page tells you how.

Encrypt your messages. Special "packet sniffing" software can intercept your e-mail on the Internet, but it's not that huge of a risk. As this sidebar from a previous "Webhead" explains, my computer can only sniff packets from a small group of other computers. (On the other hand, Mr. John Morrison of 2314 Miller St., you should really do something about that cyst.) The FBI has a giant packet-sniffer scheme in the works called Carnivore that can scan e-mail, presumably looking for terrorist bombers and kiddie porn. If you don't want anyone to read your e-mail under any circumstances (say, if you're a terrorist or sending kiddie porn), you and your correspondents should install encryption software like PGP. Personally, I don't bother—my e-mail just isn't that interesting.

The same goes with instant messages. Unfortunately the only major IM software that can be encrypted is ICQ (again using PGP). If you want to keep it a secret, don't send it by IM. Again, I don't sweat it.

Don't use your work computer for personal stuff. Not only does your employer have the right to read anything on your computer, he also controls the local network. That means he or the techs who run your system are in a perfect position to read your e-mail and instant messages and track which Web sites you visit.

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