What is computer security risk?

Information security is concerned with three main areas:

  • Confidentiality – information should be available only to those who rightfully have access to it
  • Integrity — information should be modified only by those who are authorized to do so
  • Availability — information should be accessible to those who need it when they need it

These concepts apply to home Internet users just as much as they would to any corporate or government network. You probably wouldn’t let a stranger look through your important documents. In the same way, you may want to keep the tasks you perform on your computer confidential, whether it’s tracking your investments or sending email messages to family and friends. Also, you should have some assurance that the information you enter into your computer remains intact and is available when you need it.

Before we get to what you can do to protect your computer or home network, let’s take a closer look at some of these security risks.

1. Trojan horse program security risk

Trojan horse programs are a common way for intruders to trick you (sometimes referred to as “social engineering”) into installing “back door” programs. These can allow intruders easy access to your computer without your knowledge, change your system configurations, or infect your computer with a computer virus.

2. Chat client security risk

Internet chat applications, such as instant messaging applications and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) networks, provide a mechanism for information to be transmitted bi-directionally between computers on the Internet. Chat clients provide groups of individuals with the means to exchange dialog, web URLs, and in many cases, files of any type. As always, you should be wary of exchanging files with unknown parties.

3. Back door and remote administration program security risk

On Windows computers, three tools commonly used by intruders to gain remote access to your computer are BackOrifice, Netbus, and SubSeven. These back door or remote administration programs, once installed, allow other people to access and control your computer.

4. Unprotected Windows shares security risk

Unprotected Windows networking shares can be exploited by intruders in an automated way to place tools on large numbers of Windows-based computers attached to the Internet. Because site security on the Internet is interdependent, a compromised computer not only creates problems for the computer’s owner, but it is also a threat to other sites on the Internet.

5. Mobile code (Java/JavaScript/ActiveX) security risk

There have been reports of problems with “mobile code” (e.g. Java, JavaScript, and ActiveX). These are programming languages that let web developers write code that is executed by your web browser. Although the code is generally useful, it can be used by intruders to gather information (such as which web sites you visit) or to run malicious code on your computer. It is possible to disable Java, JavaScript, and ActiveX in your web browser. We recommend that you do so if you are browsing web sites that you are not familiar with or do not trust.

6. Cross-site scripting security risk

A malicious web developer may attach a script to something sent to a web site, such as a URL, an element in a form, or a database inquiry. Later, when the web site responds to you, the malicious script is transferred to your browser.

You can potentially expose your web browser to malicious scripts by

  • Following links in web pages, email messages, or newsgroup postings without knowing what they link to
  • Using interactive forms on an untrustworthy site
  • Viewing online discussion groups, forums, or other dynamically generated pages where users can post text containing HTML tags
7. Denial of service security risk

Another form of attack is called a denial-of-service (DoS) attack. This type of attack causes your computer to crash or to become so busy processing data that you are unable to use it. In most cases, the latest patches will prevent the attack.

8. Being an intermediary for another attack security risk

Intruders will frequently use compromised computers as launching pads for attacking other systems. An example of this is how distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) tools are used. The intruders install an “agent” (frequently through a Trojan horse program) that runs on the compromised computer awaiting further instructions. Then, when a number of agents are running on different computers, a single “handler” can instruct all of them to launch a denial-of-service attack on another system. Thus, the end target of the attack is not your own computer, but someone else’s — your computer is just a convenient tool in a larger attack.

9. Email spoofing security risk

Email “spoofing” is when an email message appears to have originated from one source when it actually was sent from another source. Email spoofing is often an attempt to trick the user into making a damaging statement or releasing sensitive information (such as passwords).

Spoofed email can range from harmless pranks to social engineering ploys. Examples of the latter include

  • Email claiming to be from a system administrator requesting users to change their passwords to a specified string and threatening to suspend their account if they do not comply
  • Email claiming to be from a person in authority requesting users to send them a copy of a password file or other sensitive information
10. Email borne viruses security risk

Viruses and other types of malicious code are often spread as attachments to email messages. Before opening any attachments, be sure you know the source of the attachment. It is not enough that the mail originated from an address you recognize. The Melissa virus spread precisely because it originated from a familiar address. Also, malicious code might be distributed in amusing or enticing programs.

11. Hidden file extensions security risk

Windows operating systems contain an option to “Hide file extensions for known file types”. The option is enabled by default, but a user may choose to disable this option in order to have file extensions displayed by Windows. Multiple email-borne viruses are known to exploit hidden file extensions. The first major attack that took advantage of a hidden file extension was the VBS/LoveLetter worm which contained an email attachment named “LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.TXT.vbs”. Other malicious programs have since incorporated similar naming schemes. Examples include

  • Downloader (MySis.avi.exe or QuickFlick.mpg.exe)
  • VBS/Timofonica (TIMOFONICA.TXT.vbs)
  • VBS/OnTheFly (AnnaKournikova.jpg.vbs)
12. Packet sniffing security risk

A packet sniffer is a program that captures data from information packets as they travel over the network. That data may include user names, passwords, and proprietary information that travels over the network in clear text. With perhaps hundreds or thousands of passwords captured by the packet sniffer, intruders can launch widespread attacks on systems. Installing a packet sniffer does not necessarily require administrator-level access.

Relative to DSL and traditional dial-up users, cable modem users have a higher risk of exposure to packet sniffers since entire neighborhoods of cable modem users are effectively part of the same LAN. A packet sniffer installed on any cable modem user’s computer in a neighborhood may be able to capture data transmitted by any other cable modem in the same neighborhood.

In next article, I’ll give some advices how to protect computer security.

Acronis® Backup and Security 2010

Acronis Internet Security Suite

Computer Security Risks to Home Users
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