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Monday, October 1, 2001

Abusers will grow with technology
Narinder Gaheer

TECHNOLOGY brings its own vows. Not that the technology itself is at fault. Its that there are always abusers and bad users of technology. Abusers who use technology to harm others and bad users who are ignorant about the use of the technology. Computer industry, being the front-runner of the technologies in the last decade or so, hasnít been an exception to this. Perhaps the biggest threats to todayí technologies are aimed at intrusion of computer systems wired across the world.

Take the example of the crisis of year 2000 problem. Many of the big US and European banks were not only afraid that the year 2000 problem might cripple their computer systems but bigger worry was that computer hackers might use this as an opportunity to do fraudulent transactions at the time of turnover of 1999 to 2000. The bad users of the technology on the other hand invite problems to their door. Computer users who take their password lightly and Website administrators who allow public access to private information are some of those bad users of technology.


There has been a recent up rise in public education about computer security in developed countries due to a large number of persons using computers in their day-to-day life. Such a trend will soon appear in developing countries like India. As the use of computer grows, so will be the rise in cyber crime. To safeguard against the abusers, here are the basics that every computer user should consider.

Choose carefully

During early days, use of passwords was seen as a great security measure to safeguard privacy. Soon 12 to 14 year-old college students started breaking passwords. The most common type of attack that was used in breaking passwords was long hours of finger locks on a computer keyboard trying various combinations randomly. Passwords are still a great way to protect your computer systems but only when chosen carefully. Here are some rules:

Avoid using dictionary words as your password. Dictionary attacks take only an hour or so to go through all the possible words.

Always use a mix of alphabets and numeric characters. A password like "nirvana89" is much harder to break than just "nirvana".

Use Password Policies

There is a natural need to restrict the number of failed attempts a user can make to login into a computer system or Website. If there is no such control, dictionary attacks and brute force attack (an attack that constructs various combinations and tries them) can bypass the password security over a given time. Usually the operating system allows you to lock an account once it detects a number of failed attempts. Carefully designed Websites on the other hand can take the user to a different Web page once a number of failed attempts are detected. In such case, the hacker has to start all over again by opening the login page again. As an additional feature, failed attempts can be logged to be reviewed by the Website administrator.

Use of Credit Cards

Many online retailers ask for credit card information to charge for the goods sold online. The Internet is not a secure mesh of wires. Cyber criminals can intercept information submitted on a Web page of an online store. Almost all online retailers make use of encryption technologies to curb this problem. These encryption tools scramble the information sent by you in such a way that it become unreadable to an interceptor. You can make sure that the Website you are disclosing your credit card to, is using encryption by looking at the https://........ prefix on the Websites page that collects such information. Usually the browsers display a lock icon at the bottom when a Web page is secure to send information across.

Viruses and worms

There can never be a bigger lesson for computer users than the Love bug virus spread across the world last year. Millions of computer users clicked on the attachments of their "I Love You" mail in their mailbox without even giving a thought to what such attachment can do to their computer. A common computer user has the false assumption that his or her virus software will take care of this. Virus software is only as smart as to detect the known viruses. It doesnít and cannot know about the virus that hasnít been invented yet. So what do you do? Think twice before opening an attachment with extensions like .exe, .vbs. and .bat. These programs are executable programs and can take control over your computer. However despite the limitations of virus software, some of them come with live update so that they are regularly upgraded (over the Internet) to safeguard against newly coming viruses. So whenever you choose virus software make sure it has live update features.

Password Protection of Documents

You can protect your Word and Excel documents using passwords as well. If you are using a physical media like a floppy diskette to send some important or confidential documents to the intended receiver, it is a good practice to password-protect that document and then later on inform about the password to the receiver verbally or via e-mail. Again the key to security is to choose a cryptic password mentioned above.

These practices are not an exclusive list. Use of screen-saver password to safeguard your computer when you are away from your computer, e-mail encryption software like PGP (freely available from www.pgp.com) to safeguard your mail are some of the other techniques to safeguard your privacy. Computer security firms are coming up with newer methods of authenticating computer users by way of finger print recognition, biometric login. These techniques will take some time to reach a home user due to their high cost currently. But as the technology grows so will the abusers and again it will all boil down to turn bad users into smart ones.