Internet Access: Is Your Data Secure? (Part 1 of 3)

John Merchant, CPA, CFE

There seem to be almost endless opportunities to log on to the Internet when you are travelling or just going about your everyday life.  Most hotels offer internet connections and often you can log on from the local coffee shop or library.  Today, these connections tend to be wireless and that raises the basic question – when you access the Internet from one of these wireless sites, is your data secure?  This question needs to be posed not only for any Internet transmissions, such as e-mail messages, but even the very data on your hard drive.

Most laptop computers come equipped with wireless capability.  To access the Internet, whether you are at home, at work, or in the local coffee shop, you can connect to an Access Point.  This Access Point is a port that opens the Internet to you.  When you use an Internet connection provided by a hotel or store, they provide you access through the network that they have established.  Thus your Access Point is a common port provided through that network.  To accomplish the establishment of this common port, the network assigns an IP Address to your computer.  Once the IP address is assigned and the common port is established, the network opens the port and you have access.

As simple and helpful as this may seem, it also creates the potential for problems.  When the common port is opened and you travel through to the Internet, there is the possibility that others on the network may come through the common port to your machine.  If this happens, potentially everything on your hard drive may be exposed to those intruders.   Thus, you may become the victim of various types of fraud, including identity theft, looting of your bank accounts and exposure of confidential data.  So, what does this mean?  Should you stop using these wireless connections?

Fortunately, there are remedies and precautions and you do not have to give up on these wireless connections.  The first step in thwarting the uninvited intruder is to obtain and maintain an effective Firewall for your machine.  When intruders attempt to invade other computers that are using a wireless connection, they first obtain access to the network and the common port.  They then Ping the network using random IP Addresses in an attempt to locate one that is active.  If they find yours, your data may be in jeopardy.  An effective Firewall will prevent the Ping from returning to the intruder and alerting him to your existence.  Whenever you access the Internet through one of these sites, make sure your Firewall is turned ON.  If you turn OFF the Firewall, this protection is gone.

There are other steps that you can take and other software products that can help you keep your data secure.  We will discuss these soon in Part II.

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