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York Weekly, April 15, 2009

Explore computer security in a Wi-Fi age
Don't use a network you don't know
 
PHOTO CAPTION: Lindsey Mogren, left, a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, and her roommate, Amanda Pears, a political analyst, work on laptops inside Breaking New Grounds in Portsmouth, N.H. Local computer experts say even secured wireless fidelity hotspots pose security risks.

YORK ? From regional airports and hotels to the local library or corner caf?, Wi-Fi hot spots are everywhere.

However, while making it virtually hassle-free to access the Internet or connect with other Wi-Fi enabled devices, local experts say even secured Wi-Fi hot spots pose significant security risks.

"A secure network is really no safer (than a free network) as infections routinely come from friendly computers," said Harold Belbin, co-founder of Visiting Geeks, of Merrimac, Mass., which offers on-site computer repair services from southern Maine to north of Boston. "Seventy percent of all security breaches come from people on systems already inside the security fence."

Bob Rogers, owner of UpSurf.net in York, agreed.

"Most people do not realize while you are surfing on the Internet you are opening an Internet door for many things to come into your machine without you knowing about it," Rogers said. "Even a super secure connection I have spent a lot of time and money creating can be beaten by a bug ? no system is 100-percent protected."

Noting that cities, airports, and other public places generally no longer allow user-to-user connections, a policy that has reduced some of the security risks that once existed, Belbin said business networks are now often the targets of hackers and their bugs.

"(Hackers) can make more money ? and easier ? in hacking poorly secured business networks where credit card numbers and other financial information are stored but poorly protected," he said.

According to Al Dargie, owner of UpTime, a computer and networking company in York, significant security risks also exist for other wireless enabled devices.

"With the proliferation of thumb drives, Ipods, MP3 players, handheld devices ? these hard drives often connect from machine to machine," said Dargie. "You don't need the Internet to spread a virus."

Acknowledging that most viruses today are not created to target such devices, Dargie believes the security risks associated with their use will only grow as their respective uses become more widespread.

As for what residential consumers or business owners can do to protect themselves and their wireless enabled devices, Dargie suggested installing a personal firewall and updating one's antivirus and antispyware packages, although he notes that common sense might be the best defense.

"Never connect to a network you don't know," he said. "For unsecured networks, hackers can access all the data on your computer ? social security numbers, banking info, everything in your history."

Rogers suggests people also utilize their computer's built-in disk cleanup feature, which can eliminate cookies, temporary files, and offline Web pages. He said people should also take note there are limits to some security packages.

"Folks think because their protection has scheduled scans which run daily, they think everything is clean and good to go," said Rogers, who suggests performing a manual scan weekly. "Unfortunately, many packages perform what is called a "Smart Scan" on a daily scan (which) only checks files that most likely would be infected."

Despite the relative ease in keeping one's antivirus and security packages up to date, Belbin said certain complexities may arise from their use, which causes many people to turn their security systems off.

According to Dargie, it may be the consumer that poses the greatest security risk to his or her own Wi-Fi enabled devices.

"I can't tell you how many people still go without antivirus software ? these people become a real security danger for others," Dargie said. "People really need to be more savvy."

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