Internet Security and Privacy
Internet security is actually very straight forward. You just need to give enough pause to consider the consequences of what you are doing or want to do. If you are thoughtlessly speeding down the highway in a car you could expect to get a citation for speeding or possibly become involved in an accident. The same is true of the internet. If you give a non-secure website your real name and address, your personal information has been compromised. If you give them your phone number, expect them to call you and to sell your number to others. If you give them your email address, expect email from them and whoever else they decide to sell your address to. In general don't volunteer any information on any websites and don't allow any websites to install anything on your computer that you don't fully understand. If you think you want what they are offering but aren't sure, research it to make sure you need it or are comfortable with all that it will do for you and to you. Let's go through a few questions and answers.
Do I need a Router?
My recommendation is, YES, you need a router with a hardware firewall built in. The firewall, in effect, closes all ports to your computer from the internet by way of blocking all unsolicited inbound traffic.
What about Cable or DSL Modems with built in Routers?
When you have a router built in to the modem, you sacrifice some level of security to the discretion of your ISP. The ISP has direct external access to your modem. If your router is built in to the modem then they also have at least some access to your router which is contrary to the point of the router. Also it should be mentioned that a number of Modem/Router combos do not have any type of Firewall built in.
Does a hardware firewall have all ports closed by default?
A hardware firewall as would be found in a typical domestic router has a seemingly simple task, that is to block ALL UNSOLICITED INBOUND TRAFFIC in effect having all inbound ports closed. If you have a device or a program that requires unsolicited inbound traffic such as a web or FTP server, you would need to open the specific ports necessary for those services to be accessed from the Internet. In the Router, that is normally called Port Forwarding. To allow a standard web server to work would require that port 80 be forwarded to the specific internal IP address of the web server. If it were an FTP server, it would be port 21.
So the question was, does a hardware firewall have all ports closed by default. My answer would have to be YES. Absolutely no unsolicited inbound traffic is allowed regardless of port. If you don't actually open a specific port, no inbound traffic is allowed so I would have to conclude that the port is closed without intervention.
What is unsolicited inbound traffic?
Unsolicited inbound traffic would be any probe or attempt to access your Network from any location that was not requested from a device on the protected side of the router. You would be amazed at how many times each day your Network is probed, sometimes by legitimate sources like Search Engines seeing Web Servers and sometimes by people, aka Hackers, trying to find vulnerabilities.
What would solicited inbound traffic be?
Each time you access the Internet, you send a request for information. The router records which device on the Network made that request so when the information comes in it knows which device to send it to. That information could be the graphics and text that you see in your browser when you visit a Website and was solicited by you using your browser and running through the Router.
The next logical question is, do I still need a software firewall on my individual computer?
The software firewall is probably your best line of defence as it not only protects you from Internet attacks but also from intranet attacks if you have other computers on your local network.
What about an anti-virus program?
A good anti-virus software package is still necessary. Without it, you could still get infections through email and even in things as seemingly harmless as a picture loading in your browser from a website. A good anti-virus software would stop these kind of threats before the infection gets to your computer.
Privacy on the internet has become a key issue. There is a lot of misinformation out there regarding what is and is not secure. Lets go through a few questions and answers about privacy.
Should I worry about hiding my IP address?
The short answer is NO. I am not aware of any method of locating the physical location of any IP address other then through logical deduction if it's a business IP address. If you do something illegal, a warrant can be issued requiring your ISP to provide the legal authorities with your physical address but lacking that warrant, your information is secure with your ISP.
Does a proxy server truly hide my IP address?
Absolutely not!! A proxy server can make it harder to track the IP your on but there is no such thing as complete anonymity on the Internet. Most people that are intent on seeing your true IP, will. Also proxy servers are required to keep records to protect themselves from prosecution when providing proxy services to people doing illegal things on the Internet.
What information can a website collect from my visit?
When you visit any website, they have the ability to and most likely do record your IP address, the browser you use, the operating system you use and some other insignificant information. This is generally used as statistical data and could be sold to companies like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo to help them know how they need to mold their companies based on trends. There is nothing there that identifies you personally. The information you physically provide to that site however can also be recorded and usually is. Things such as username, gender, email addresses and any preferences you might indicate. These results are usually available to search engines which makes it all known to the public. The point here is that you should be very careful about the information you volunteer to any website. The exceptions here would be things like online banking where you are relying on their integrity to keep your information private. Just make sure the site URL begins with https not just http. Even sites like Facebook will sell much of the information they accumulate about their users.
Which browsers are the most secure?
That is a constant debate. I use Firefox exclusivly because I like being able to configure it to be exactly what I want through it's about:config interface. Internet Explorer is by far the most popular but Firefox is gaining market share. Then there are browsers such as Opera, Google Chrome and Safari. All of them focus on security. If they don't, they would loose their footing in the market almost immediately. I have not investigated it to any extent but I would suspect the Google Chrome browser to have some kind of tracking built into it much like the Google Toolbar available for any other browser. That alone is enough for me to avoid it. I don't like being tracked. In the end, all of the popular browsers are reasonably secure for normal use on the internet. From this perspective, a good firewall and anti-virus program are invaluable.
What about Browser Toolbars?
It is my opinion that ALL, let me repeat, ALL Toolbars are by definition spyware. They provide them for free so they can compile the data that the Toolbar collects and sell it other companies. These Toolbars collect as much as they can about you. Where you go on the internet, how long you stay there how often you go there. They keep track of who you buy from online and approximately how much money you spend online. They also use the collected information to mold the kind of advertising you see when you browse the internet. Though there is nothing intently malicious about this kind of tracking, I view these as personal privacy invasions so I don't allow any Toolbars on any computers for which I am responsible for security. This policy even extends to business computers for which I am responsible.
What about privacy in email?
There is really no such thing as a secure email. Any email you send can potentially be read by others so be very careful what you put in emails. Every email that is sent regardless of who sent it has a header built in that identifies the sender by IP address. The headers are not normally seen by the average user but are always present. Some of the online email services such as gmail don't always include the actual senders IP but it can be obtained through a legal warrant.
Does having too many email addresses in an email represent a security risk?
It does for all of the people who's addresses are present there. When you forward email, you should remove all email addresses that were in the email when you received it. This can help reduce spam on a global scale by not showing everyone who has received a given email. Consider that if an email has been forwarded 4 times, it could contain 50 to 100 email addresses of people that don't know each other. If any one of those computers is compromised by an email bot, which can easily happen, all of those 50 to 100 people will start getting emails from the bot machine trying to sell them Viagra and whatever else the spammers can think of. Those same 50 to 100 addresses will probably be forwarded to a central database through the bot software to start sending spam from other bot computers and very soon the people on that list can be getting 100 emails per day that are spam.
Also, when you send an email to multiple people, use the BCC or Blind Carbon Copy method that sends it to all of the people with only their address showing in the email. All anyone will see is that it was sent to "undisclosed recipients".