Is Your Information Safe?

He doesn\'t wear a stocking mask over his face, and he doesn\'t break a
window to get into your house. He doesn\'t hold a gun to your head, nor does he
ransack your personal possessions. Just the same he\'s a thief. Although this
thief is one you\'ll not only never see, but you may not even realize right away
that he\'s robbed you. The thief is a computer hacker and he "enters" your home
via your computer, accessing personal information -- such as credit card numbers
-- which he could then use without your knowledge -- at least until you get that
next credit card statement. Richard Bernes, supervisor of the FBI\'s Hi-Tech
squad in San Jose, California, calls the Internet "the unlocked window in
cyberspace through which thieves crawl" (Erickson 1). There seems to be an
unlimited potential for theft of credit card numbers, bank statements and other
financial and personal information transmitted over the Internet.
It\'s hard to imagine that anyone in today\'s technologically oriented
world could function without computers. Personal computers are linked to
business computers and financial networks, and all are linked together via the
Internet or other networks. More than a hundred million electronic messages
travel through cyberspace every day, and every piece of information stored in a
computer is vulnerable to attack (Icove-Seger-VonStorch 1). Yesterday\'s bank
robbers have become today\'s computer hackers. They can walk away from a computer
crime with millions of virtual dollars (in the form of information they can use
or sell for an enormous profit). Walking away is precisely what they do. The
National Computer Crimes Squad estimates that 85-97 % of the time, theft of
information from computers is not even detected (Icove-Seger-VonStorch 1).
Home computer users are vulnerable, not only for credit card information
and login IDs, but also their files, disks, and other computer equipment and
data, which are subject to attack. Even if this information is not confidential,
having to reconstruct what has been destroyed by a hacker can take days (Icove-
Seger-VonStorch 1). William Cheswick, a network-security specialist at AT&T Bell
Labs, says the home computers that use the Internet are singularly vulnerable to
attack. "The Internet is like a vault with a screen door on the back," says
Cheswick. "I don\'t need jackhammers and atom bombs to get in when I can walk in
through the door" (Quittner 44).
The use of the Internet has become one of the most popular ways to
communicate. It\'s easy, fun, and you don\'t have to leave your home to do it. For
example, the advantage of not having to take the time to drive to the bank is so
great that they never consider the fact that the information they store or
transmit might not be safe. Many computer security professionals continue to
speak out on how the lack of Internet security will result in a significant
increase in computer fraud, and easier access to information previously
considered private and confidential (Regan 26).
Gregory Regan, writing for Credit World, says that only certain types of
tasks and features can be performed securely. Electronic banking is not one of
them. "I would not recommend performing commercial business transactions," he
advises "or sending confidential information across networks attached to the
Internet" (26).
In the business world, computer security can be just as easily
compromised. More than a third of major U.S. corporations reported doing
business over the Internet -- up from 26 percent a year ago -- but a quarter of
them say they\'ve suffered attempted break-ins and losses, either in stolen data
or cash (Denning 08A).
Dr. Gregory E. Shannon, president of InfoStructure Services and
Technologies Inc., says the need to improve computer security is essential.
There are newly released computer tools intended to help keep the security of
your PC information, but which can just as easily be accessed by computer
hackers, as this information will be released as freeware (available, and free,
to anyone) on the Internet (Cambridge 1). These freely distributed tools could
make it far easier for hackers to break into systems. Presently, if a hacker is
trying to break into a system, he has to keep probing a network for weaknesses.
Before long, hackers will be able to point one of these freeware tools at a
network and let it automatically probe for security holes, without any
interaction from themselves (Cambridge 1). Hackers, it seems, have no trouble
staying ahead of the computer security experts.
Online service providers, such as America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy,
are effective in providing additional protection for computer information. First
of all, you need to use a "secret password" --