Secure Your New Year From Lurking Risks

Simple measures can protect your important data from a breach of security.

January 1, 2005

Few steps you take this year to protect your investment in and reliance on technology will do as much as implementing a security strategy.

Whether you’re the IT officer for a multi-site company or a residential specialist who works between a home office and the field, the more reliant you are on technology—particularly mobile technology—the greater your concerns should be about security, including theft, damage, and corruption of your valuable data by hackers or computer viruses. It’s better to address potential vulnerabilities at the outset of the New Year than find yourself forced to deal with them later, once your data or tools have been compromised or lost. One useful resource is Microsoft’s Security Web site for Windows users.

Steps to Protect Yourself

First ascertain how vulnerable you are. Review your tools, and how and where you use them. In your mobile lifestyle, you likely use some combination of cell phone, computer, PDA, or smartphone. And you swap files and move data between these devices by e-mail, Internet downloads, removable Flash media, Bluetooth, infrared, wired, and wireless networking. The more sensitive that information about your business and clients is, the greater your need to safeguard it.

Having adequate security means two things: 1) protecting hardware from theft or damage and 2) minimizing the risk of corruption or theft of vital data stored on these devices. You can accomplish both by:

  • Regularly backing up important files and data to an auxiliary hard drive or removable medium. That backup is always your best assurance that if your hardware is damaged or stolen, or a virus corrupts your system, you can resume working without a costly disruption.
  • Protecting against theft or damage to the hardware itself. Although your initial fear may be losing your hardware to theft, there’s a much greater chance your equipment could be damaged through mishandling and require repairs. Here, the solution can be as relatively low-tech as a protective case for the unit. For added protection, the next time you’re shopping for hardware, focus on units built for the road with rugged protective metal cases.
  • Minimizing the potential for theft. Don’t leave equipment unattended in any public place, even for a minute. To prevent or deter the likelihood hardware will be stolen, use security cables, locks, and audible alarm systems that attach to the hardware. (For more on this read May 2004 Tech Watch column Buyers Guide: Privacy and Security )
  • Activating a password-protection system in order to access all information stored on your hard drive. The real concern posed by hardware theft is unauthorized access to your files. Activating a password-protection system is the easiest remedy but one that isn’t a standard feature of your operating system software. You need to buy products that add this capability from companies such as Pointsec or DataViz Inc. Or if you really want to go high tech, you can buy systems with special sensors that read your fingerprint before they allow access to files. This capability is built into a few high-end computers and PDAs and also available as an add-on peripheral from several companies, including  Microsoft and Sony.
  • Installing a firewall. Thieves no longer need your hardware in hand to get their hands on vital data. The Internet, with its constant back-and-forth flow of information, opens a portal to all the information on your hard drive or network servers. Firewall software, which creates a barrier between your PC and the world at large, protects against a range of intruders, from damaging software viruses and worms to hackers eager to explore and retrieve the contents of your hard drive. There are a range of software products you can buy to add this protection to your system, from computer security software specialists like Symantec, McAfee, and Zone Labs.
  • Installing and activating encryption software. Since Wi-Fi networks move data over radio waves within a limited range, the files or e-mail messages you send and receive could conceivably be monitored by anyone in the area with the right equipment and wrong intentions. You can eliminate the potential for eavesdropping by using encryption software from suppliers such as Utimaco Safeware and Cypherix. All Wi-Fi equipment incorporates some level of encryption technology, but vendors don’t always employ the same solution. For this reason, you may want to buy all your Wi-Fi equipment from one vendor or at least explore the compatibility issues before you build the network.
  • Setting the network hardware to only allow identified users. Unless you restrict Wi-Fi access to authorized users, anyone in the area with Wi-Fi-enabled hardware might be able to log on, use your resources, monitor activity, or access files. You can prevent such access by setting the network hardware to only allow connections with hardware devices that have already been identified in the system.

Even if you take every step outlined here, there’s still no guarantee your equipment or data will ever be completely safe from a determined hacker. As part of your security strategy, reconsider the records and information you permanently store on your hardware and the content of files and messages you send and receive. It may be prudent to store and share sensitive data only as needed.

Accept, too, that effective security isn’t a one-time job. It requires a year-round commitment to continually monitor emerging threats, assess vulnerabilities, and take whatever steps are necessary to protect your equipment and data.

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