Internet Security – the Threats Are Very Real

-->from Educators' eZineIntroductionThere are many security threats that face computers in the world today, and we are going to look at a few of them as they relate to the Internet. Since its inception, the Internet has grown from original purpose as a
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from Educators' eZine

Introduction

There are many security threats that face computers in the world today, and we are going to look at a few of them as they relate to the Internet. Since its inception, the Internet has grown from original purpose as a military tool to a worldwide phenomenon. According to the latest statistical analysis, it is estimated there are over 1.1 billion Internet users worldwide [1]. The Internet is full of useful information, in fact, it is estimated that there are between 15 and 30 billion Websites in existence today [2].

The following table provides the statistical breakdown of world Internet usage.

Table 1 World Internet Usage and Population Statistics

World Regions

Population (2007 Est.)

Population % of World

Internet Usage, Latest Data

% Population (Penetration)

Usage % of World

Usage Growth 2000-2007

Africa

933,448,292

14.2 %

33,334,800

3.6%

3.0%

638.4%

Asia

3,712,527,624

56.5%

398,709,065

10.7%

35.8%

248.8%

Europe

809,624,686

12.3%

314,792,225

38.9%

28.3%

199.5%

Middle East

193,452,727

2.9%

19,424,700

10.0%

1.7%

491.4%

North America

334,538,018

5.1%

233,188,086

69.7%

20.9%

115.7%

Latin America/Caribbean

556,606,627

8.5%

96,386,009

17.3%

8.7%

433.4%

Oceania/Australia

34,468,443

0.5%

18,439,541

53.5%

1.7%

142.0%

WORLD TOTAL

6,574,666,417

100.0%

1,114,274,426

16.9%

100.0%

208.7%

Considering this estimate of available websites, it is easy to see that the Internet is an invaluable resource to many people. The Internet provides many diverse and useful resources such as Email, instant messaging, academic research, product research, paying bills, shopping, online banking, and the list goes on and on. For many of its 1.1 billion users the Internet is not just a tool but a way of life. But most users fail to take the time to research the risks involved, which include SPAM, phishing, Trojan viruses, hackers, and spyware/malware. This paper will also discuss some measures you, as a user, can take to help secure yourself and your computer against these Internet security threats.

Project Description

According to Radicati, 651 million people around the world now use Email regularly. This figure is expected to grow steadily over the next four years, reaching 850 million users by the end of 2008 [3].

Figure 1 Internet Email Traffic Worldwide

Email is very convenient, but with that convenience comes several security risks. Sending an Email that contains confidential information is the virtual equivalent of sending someone a postcard through regular mail. For this reason, it is a good idea to use encryption when sending when sending sensitive data. But the more common and potentially the most harmful Email security threat is not in what you send but what is sent to you. Junk Email, or SPAM, is a bigger problem than most realize. A telephone-based survey of adults who use the Internet found that more than 75% receive SPAM daily. The average number of SPAM messages received per day is 18.5, and the average time spent per day deleting them is 2.8 minutes. This wasted time costs American businesses nearly $22 billion a year. The loss in productivity is equivalent to $21.6 billion per year at average US wages, according to the National Technology Readiness Survey produced by Rockbridge Associates and the Center for Excellence in Service at Maryland's business school. Even worse, 14% of SPAM recipients actually read messages to see what they say, and 4% of the recipients have bought something advertised through SPAM within the past year [3]. The best defense against SPAM is to use a SPAM filter. If you use Outlook 2003 or higher there is a built-in SPAM filter that you can configure to your personal requirements.

While SPAM can seem annoying but harmless, a subset of SPAMming, called phishing, is a very real threat. A phishing Email attempt will appear to many users to be a legitimate Email perhaps from a reputable company or bank. However, the intent of the sender is to lure you into giving them your personal information such as your social security number, usernames and passwords, and even your bank account or credit card numbers. This is done by sending huge amounts of SPAM phishing Emails to many users. The phishing Email may state that your bank account information needs to be updated and will provide a hyperlink to a website that looks like your bank's website. However, this is not your bank's website, but one created by the phisher to look just like it! You use your login information, and update your personal information and logout thinking you have updated your information, but what you have really done is given your information to a thief. The phisher will then use your personal information to steal your identity and your money. In November 2006, 11% of fake banking websites attempted to spoof UK banking brands, while 75% of false banking sites targeted customers of US banks. The UK hosted 2% of these false banking sites, while the US hosted 63% of phishing sites globally [4].

You can defend yourself against phishing attempts by being aware of procedures. A bank will never send you an Email asking you for your personal information. Most of the bank's correspondence will be done with post office mail or with a phone call. It is vitally important to investigate any Email or link to a website you receive via Email before you input any of your personal information. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 actually has a built in anti-phishing filter that will scan websites against a pool of known phishing sites. While this is not fool proof, it is an added defense against phishing attempts. This feature must be turned on to work, and this can be accomplished through Internet options under tools on the file menu. Again, user education and an awareness of procedure is the best defense against this type of threat or scam.

Another common Internet security threat is becoming infected with a computer virus. A computer virus can be passed many ways such as via Email, floppy disk, CDRW, flash drive, network connection, or a hacker breaking into your system. How many viruses are out there? In 2004, according to the IBM Corporation, there were 112,438Compare that to 2002, when only 4,551 new viruses were discovered. Of 147 billion e-mails scanned by IBM for customers in 2004, 6% contained a virus. During 2002, just 0.5% of Email scanned had viruses [3]. Some viruses will simply cause your data to become corrupt, while others are designed to steal your data or create a backdoor into your system via the Internet, which are called Trojan's.

Figure 2 Trojan Infections from 2004 – mid 2006 [5]

The best defense against computer viruses is to install an antivirus program on every computer you own. There are many different antivirus vendors, and there are equally as many opinions on which one is the best to use. When selecting an antivirus product, make sure it includes an automatic update feature. An antivirus program can only detect a virus if it knows the virus exists, and it does this via virus definitions. Since new viruses are constantly being created it is imperative to keep your antivirus definitions up to date and by using a package with an automatic update feature will do this for you. Also, be sure the antivirus you use utilizes real-time protection, which will quickly identify the presence of a virus. It is also important that your antivirus program scans Email attachments automatically for viruses. Since many viruses are transmitted via Email this can be a valuable tool! First and foremost, it is important as a user to be educated and aware of potentially harmful files. Never open any files or Emails if you do not know the person that sent them to you. Following this rule can save you a lot of trouble later.

Another growing security threat is something know as spyware. If you notice your computer is suddenly abnormally slow, receives many pop-up advertisements, or your homepage has been hijacked, your computer is likely infected with spyware. Here are three shocking statistics reported by PCSecurityNews.com: 8 out of 10 PC's are infected with some sort of Spyware, with an average of 24.4 spies per PC scanned, Microsoft estimates that 50% of all PC crashes are due to spyware, Dell reports that 20% of all technical support calls involve spyware [6].

Figure 3 Spyware Infections from 2004 – mid 2006 [5]

When you look at these statistics it is easy to see that spyware is a very real threat to all PC's connected to the Internet, and many users are unaware that they are victims of spyware. There are several defenses against spyware. The most popular method is using an Antispyware software package. These software packages work similar to Antivirus programs. Most have an automatic update feature to download the latest antispyware definitions and some will scan your PC for infections in real-time. There are many packages available for purchase and some available for free to download, such as Spybot and Ad-Aware. Microsoft has even joined the fight against spyware with their free for download program called Windows Defender. One of the best defenses against spyware is to prevent infection by developing safe Internet surfing habits. In other words, stay away from questionable websites. Spyware not only comes from websites but you can also be infected by Peer to Peer file sharing. Spyware and Viruses run rampant on P2P file sharing networks such as LimeWire, Kazaa, Bearshare, Gnutella, Grokster, and eDonkey. When you connect to these and other P2P networks to share files, the chances are you do not know who you are downloading the file from or who is downloading files from you. Forty-five percent of the executable files downloaded through Kazaa contain malicious code [7]. It is the best practice not to use these types of services as a spyware or virus infection is likely to occur on your computer.

Finally, there s is the hacker. Computer hacking is something that has been glamorized by Hollywood in recent years. While it remains a very interesting subject for computer techies, it is a very serious threat and should not be taken lightly. A hacker may attempt to access your computer or network for a number of reasons, which include file storage, information for identity theft, malicious intent, or even just for fun. Many computers and networks have been compromised by hackers around the world, and the users are unaware they have been hacked. The best defense against hacking is to set up a strong defense perimeter. A good basic defense should consist of a firewall, strong passwords (at least 8 characters long utilizing both numeric, alphanumeric, and special characters), the latest software patches for your operating system and applications, and Antivirus/Antispyware software with updated definitions. PSINet Europe purposely built an unprotected server and connected it to the Internet to determine how quickly it would be compromised. Their findings were astonishing: the server was maliciously attacked 467 times in the first 24 hours, most of the attacks originated in the US or Western Europe, and after 3 weeks a total of 626 attacks were detected against the server [8]. It is easy to see from this case study project that if you have a computer connected to the Internet without proper security, it will be compromised very quickly. It is especially important for users with a broadband Internet connection to maintain security due to the nature of the "always on" Internet connection. In this case your computer is always vulnerable to attack while it is powered on unless you have the network connection disabled or unplugged.

Conclusion

After compiling and analyzing these Internet security threat statistics, the only possible conclusion is that the Internet, while very useful, is not to be taken lightly. Every Internet user should be aware and educated of the threats and vulnerabilities that surround the Internet and know what to do to protect themselves against these known threats. Due to the commercialization and ease of use of the Internet in the last decade, it is only reasonable to conclude that the Internet will grow as society becomes more reliant on it and its conveniences. With this conclusion, it is also reasonable to conclude that new Internet security threats will likely arise in the coming months and years, and therefore will require users to become even more proactive in defending their computer systems. It is always important to know the risks of any activity a person chooses to pursue in life, and the Internet is no exception. Internet users should stay abreast of current threats and defense mechanisms by using the Internet itself as a research tool. There are many good sources on the Internet for current and past threats and how to setup a defense against them. The irony is that you can use the Internet to learn how to make your Internet surfing more secure. It also never hurts to get a knowledgeable friend or consultant to take a look at your current configuration and make suggestions on how to harden your security. In conclusion, the Internet is full of useful material but this comes at a risk. It is important to develop safe surfing habits and a strong security plan before connecting to and utilizing the Internet.

Email:Daniel James

References

[1] World Internet Users and Population Stats.

[2] The size of the World Wide Web.

[3] Security Statistics.

[4] Some Interesting RSA Phishing Stats.

[5] State of Spyware Q2 2006.

[6] Three Shocking Statistics on Spyware!.

[7] Key Internet Usage Statistics.

[8] General Information Security Statistics.

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