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Do You Need a Firewall?

How to Work Safely in the Office

You don't need silver bullets to stop computer hackers, but — if you have high–speed Internet access (or are considering signing up for it) — you do need a firewall.

Broadband basics

The most common broadband Internet connections are DSL and cable. Both are called "always on" access because they enable users to turn on their computers and instantly log onto the Internet without dialing through a phone line. Since they deliver speeds up to 25 times faster than dial–up, DSL and cable also help you save time and improve productivity.

The danger

Many small and businesses with broadband connections are walking a dangerous tightrope, even when their computers are asleep. This is because an "always on" connection opens a 24–hour pipeline to the host computer whenever it is not shut down. Ambitious hackers can use this pipeline to access financial and personal information, disable or destroy a computer's operating system, or even to launch viruses or spam at other Internet accounts or networks.

Is dial-up completely safe?

Users with dial–up connections get a different IP address every time they log on.

What hackers are looking for is an unchanging IP address that they tap into and use for their destructive purposes. This makes broadband the perfect target — and dial–ups impractical. While you can never say never, hackers virtually never bother with dial–up connections. The only real danger for dial–ups is from computer viruses (more on that below).

The solution — and how to get it

If you have broadband Internet access, you need a firewall. A firewall can either be software or hardware. Home firewalls block unauthorized access to a computer system and its IP address. Business firewalls block all incoming and outgoing messages (such as computer viruses) messages that are unauthorized or that don't meet specified security criteria.

Internet access providers do not provide any firewall or anti–virus security. What they do usually include in their packages are installation and a modem.

Many small businesses opt for both software and hardware firewalls. Fortunately, personal firewall software only costs between $50 and $85. Small business firewall software packages (with protection for five to ten computers) cost between $190 and $3,200. The more expensive programs come with a robust suite of additional anti–virus protections. Hardware firewalls, which start at approximately $60, are built in to the DSL or cable routers that are required to share the Internet connection among multiple computers.

Is a firewall enough?

No. You also need anti–virus software, which blocks malignant files from reaching your computer via email attachments, documents, or executable programs. Firewalls don't scan incoming emails or email attachments. Some firewall software programs — even low–priced individual versions — come with a "suite" of security, including ad blocking, spam filtering, and, of course, anti–virus protection. If your firewall software includes anti–virus software, then you don't need to purchase additional anti–virus protection.

Important note: Firewall and anti–virus software aren't foolproof guarantees of security. Unfortunately there is no such thing as can't–fail protection. While hackers and viruses might still invade protected computers, the likelihood of infiltration is significantly reduced by firewall and anti–virus programs.

Anti–hacking tip: As a general rule, you shouldn't open any files attached to an email that read EXE or that end with the code .exe. These executable files are popular for hackers looking for ways to piggy–back malicious code into your computer.1


1"Keeping it Safe: A Checklist for Internet Security", Feb. 26, 2002. Matthew Sarrel. PC Magazine.com.

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