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Network Security For Home Users

When it comes to computer networks, they usually fall into one of two basic categories:

  • Traditional wired networks
  • Wireless networks

Both of these types of networks are vulnerable to attacks, both from malicious programs and unscrupulous individuals. The most common use for a home network today is to allow all the computers to access the Internet through a high-speed connection, such as DSL or cable modem. This allows Internet access - both ways. When you connect a computer to the Internet, obviously, you are able to receive information. What is not so obvious is that hackers can pull information from your computer, and worm viruses can force their way onto your computer. Both of these things can be prevented through the use of some tools that are readily available.

Most casual hackers will attempt to access your system by probing known security holes in your computer. The easiest way to stop this action is to make sure that you have updated Windows, or whichever operating system you may have. Updates to the operating system are crucial. These updates "close the open door" that hackers try to use to gain access to your information.

Worms are special programs that install onto a computer and use the network resources for its own purposes. Lately, they have been turning computers into storage areas, where the worm's creator may distribute illegal software or movies. While people are downloading from your computer, you are trying to receive information from the Internet. This causes a drastic drop in your network performance. Worms can be detected and removed from your computer through the use of an antivirus program. Trojans can cause similar problems and are also are easily removed by antivirus programs. Computers on a network are particularly vulnerable to these viruses because after one computer is infected the virus can easily spread itself to all the computers on the network--antivirus software is particularly important for networked computers.

The Item That No Network Should Be Without: A Firewall

Firewalls are either software programs or hardware devices that act as a watchdog or gatekeeper for your Internet connection. The firewall will monitor which programs get to send out information to the Internet, and which ones are allowed to receive. If the program is not on the approved lists, then the request to send or receive is denied. It also monitors attempts to connect to your computer from an outside source (hacker attempts). One of the few reasons you would need to allow an outside connection is to establish an over-the-Internet game with friends. The firewall can be programmed to allow for some exceptions; otherwise it stops incoming requests for information and blocks 'force feeding' of programs onto your computer.

Wireless Networks Have Another Problem: Controlling the Computers That Connect To Your Network.

Due to the nature of wireless networks, you don't have to be able to see a computer for it to be able to connect to your network. Any computer that comes into range of your network will be able to connect behind the firewall--just as if it were one of your own computers. If the new computer is infected with a worm, it will rapidly spread to all your other computers. This is a big problem for people who live in apartments, where wireless signals can easily pass through walls, floors, or ceilings. If your network is not configured properly, your neighbor could very well access your network. If your neighbor happens to be a clandestine hacker, he or she will no longer have to get past the firewall in order to get to your files. Even if your neighbor isn't interested in your files he or she can enjoy the benefits of your Internet service for free, using up resources and slowing your connection in the process. If your equipment is set up properly, this doesn't have to be the case.

Wireless network devices have safety features built into their configuration. There is an encryption capability built into all wireless network adapters and base station relays. If you enable this encryption, no outsiders will be able to access your network without your knowledge.

Activating the wireless encryption is different for every network card manufacturer, but the basic steps are the same. Look under your wireless network card settings for either WEP (Wireless Equivalent Privacy) or encryption. This encrypts all data coming and going from your computer with a "key". The key is like the 'secret password' for your network. Without it, no one will talk to that computer. You specify the key, and it can be anything you want it to be. The only catch is that you must use the same key on all of your wireless network devices, or the computers will refuse to talk to each other.

Linksys has more detailed information about wireless security and encryption methods: Linksys Network Set-up Info.

If you are about to network your computers, and are wondering if your should go wireless, check out about.com's article Wired vs Wireless.

Most shared Internet connections are facilitated through the use of a network router. This device acts as the middleman for the group, and is the only item visible to people on the Internet. Routers come in all types; wired networks, wireless networks, or a combination of both. Lower end routers usually have the basic firewall functions built into them, but still lack some of the features that you would find in a true firewall. Companies have started offereing 'all in one' products that combine firewall, wired networking, and wireless security into one unit, like Netgear's WGU624. Usually, the firewall in these units can be configured to protect children from websites that are not appropriate for minors.

Back to: Part 4: Protective Measures
Go on to: Part 5: Security Checklist

This page was designed as a project for LIS5362, Design and Production of Network Multimedia, a class at the Florida State University School of Information Studies. Copyright 2004, All Rights Reserved. Last Updated: Nov 2004.