by Matt Villano
Is your computer as safe from hackers and viruses as it could be? Even if you think it is, you might be wrong.
According to a report released Wednesday by the National Cyber Security Alliance, most broadband cable customers lack the most basic protections against the dangers of a persistent connection to the Internet. The report also highlights a major perception gap on the issue of broadband security – while most consumers believe they have taken adequate steps to protect their computer, only 11 percent actually have safe and securely configured systems.
Experts blame this disconnect on a lack of education. Tatiana Gau, Chief Trust Officer and Senior Vice President for Integrity Assurance at America Online
, says that while most consumers are aware of security threats such as viruses and hackers, few of them have identified specifically how to tackle these threats head-on and make certain that their personal systems are secure.
“Without even knowing they are unsafe, millions of high-speed users are putting themselves and their families at risk by having unprotected broadband,” Gau said in a statement released with the report. “A basic broadband connection without protection can be the equivalent of a high-speed sewage pipe into the home.”
With this in mind, some of the key findings of the report include:
- 86 percent of consumers say they keep sensitive health, financial, or personal information on their home computers.
- 97 percent of parents with broadband connections do not use parental controls to keep their children safe from inappropriate content and contact with strangers on the Internet.
- 91 percent of users have intrusion software, or “spyware,” on their home computers, much of it uploaded surreptitiously by music or file sharing programs.
- Although 76 percent of consumers have anti-virus software on their computers, only half of that group has updated their software in the past month.
- Only 33 percent of all computer users have a properly configured and secure firewall, meaning two out of every three broadband homes are not secure.
Experts focus on this last point as one of the most critical statistics in the report as a whole. Properly installed firewalls, though they slow computer performance significantly, are considered some of the best protectors against the dangers of the Internet today. As former Century Communications CEO Bern Gallagher explains it to internetnews.com, few, if any, broadband services offer firewall protection on the server-side, meaning that individual customers must use individual firewall technology to protect their information at home.
“The way hackers work, they break into a [broadband] system and go sequentially right down the customer list,” said Gallagher, who now consults on broadband issues for a variety of smaller cable firms. “Firewalls stop these guys cold… if they hit one, they just give up and go on to the next computer.”
Gallagher says that many broadband service providers offer free firewall products upon request. The Alliance also recommends automatically or regularly updated anti-virus software programs, as well as parental control software for households that include children who may be subjected to inappropriate content through spam.
The report summarizes a study conducted for the Alliance in the homes of 120 typical broadband consumers by technical experts from AOL. The entire study, entitled “Fast and Present Danger,” as well as a list of security precautions broadband consumers can take to make their connections more secure, can be accessed online through the Alliance’s “Stay Safe Online” campaign Web site.