BOOT CAMP 473 (24/04/07)

Paranoia and Privacy pt 2


With almost daily reports in the media of identity theft and hackers breaking into computers it is easy to get paranoid but for the vast majority of PC owners, who take commonsense precautions and keep their computer and network’s security features enabled and updated, the risks are actually very low.


Most identity theft does not involve on-line interception or retrieval of data from personal computers. It occurs through carelessness, discarding documents containing personal information, not looking after credit and debit cards and PIN numbers, or, most worryingly, through company negligence.


Unfortunately there’s not much you can do about security lapses in the organisations and financial institutions that we trust to store our information, but you can ensure the data stored on your computer is safe, but how do you know?


One way is to put your PC’s defences to the test by subjecting it to a simulated hacking attempt and I thoroughly recommend ‘Shields Up’, which you can find on the Gibson Research Corporation website at


Steve Gibson, who created the site, is one of the world’s leading security experts and he has devised a series of free on-line checks that probe your computer, seeking out any weaknesses that might allow a hacker to gain access to your files.


All of the tests are safe. Any information retrieved from your machine will not be retained and it won’t interfere with its configuration, but before you make a start, if the computer you are testing is not your own, make sure you have the appropriate rights or permissions to carry out these tests.


To begin go to the Sheilds Up home page and take a look at the box showing your PC’s IP Address. This is the unique identity assigned to your computer by your ISP. It should be a fairly meaningless string of characters and is no cause for concern but it does tell anyone who might be interested the name of your ISP. As the explanatory note points out, it almost certainly changes every time you renew your connection, though if you are using broadband and leave your modem switched on all the time this probably doesn’t happen very often.


Click the Proceed button and you will see the Shields Up Service panel. Click the File Sharing button and your current numerical IP Address is shown; this is followed by a series of basic checks on your PC’s main Internet ports and NetBIOS network protocol, which could reveal details about your computer. Ideally Shields Up will report back that your PC has refused the connection and no information can be obtained. Any other response suggests that you do not have a working firewall installed on your PC and you should put that right immediately; see this week’s Top Tip.


Scroll down the page to the Shields Up panel and click the Common Ports button. This takes a few seconds after which you will see a Pass or Fail notice, then a detailed list of port vulnerabilities. If your PC’s security features are doing their job the report should show nothing but green ‘Stealth’ indicators. Any red ‘Open’ or blue ‘Closed’ icons may be a cause for concern and you should click the link for a more detailed analysis, and what you can do about it.


Move down the page to the main panel again and this time click the Service Ports button. This test can take a minutes or two as Shields Up scans your PC’s first 1056 ports. Once again the aim is for a ‘Pass’ and for them all to be labelled green ‘Stealth’ mode. Read the accompanying notes for an explanation of any reports of Open or Closed ports.


If you have been getting all green Stealth and Pass results up until now you can be pretty sure your PC is safe, but there’s a couple of extra checks you should carry out, for complete peace of mind. The first one is to get Sheilds Up to send you a Messenger Spam message. On all recent versions of XP Windows Messenger is switched off by default but if it not, when you click the ‘Spam Me’ button a pop up message appears on your screen you should follow the instructions to switch it off.


The final check is ‘Browser Headers’ and this displays the information your browser sends out when it is queried by a website. This can be very revealing, and may include details of web sites you’ve visited recently, stored in ‘cookies’. Further down the page there’s a facility to create a custom cookie, so you can see if this if stored on your PC, and revealed during the browser header check.


In amongst the return from the browser request you may see the name and version number of your web browser, your operating system, even things like your monitor screen resolution and colour depth. None of this is especially important or poses a security threat, but it just goes to show how easy it is for information to be sent from your PC without your knowledge or permission.


Next Week – Shareware and Freeware Top Tens





Network Basic Input/Output System – a communications system that allows computers to communicate with one another over networks and the Internet


PORT (software)

A connection, though not in the physical sense, created in by communications software to exchange information with other computers and networks



Internal network communications system installed as standard in Windows XP (not to be confused with MSN Messenger or Windows Live Messenger)




If your PC fails at the first hurdle you should make sure that your machine is protected by a Firewall. Windows XP has a basic one built in and this can be found by going to Start > Control Panel > Security Centre and click the On button. Better still, install a third-party firewall, most of which provide even greater protection and Zone Alarm, which is free, works as well, if not better than many of its commercial rivals.




© R. Maybury 2007, 1804

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