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Computer Security

Computer security has been on people’s minds quite a bit lately. What with all the new different viruses, worms and new schemes to get information through firewalls, I can see why. These problems cause downtime, which costs money. I had recently shared a conversation over a beer with one of my acquaintances who works for a networking security company. He’d given a presentation to a local business leaders conference about security. Did he talk about the latest and greatest in counter measures and self healing networks? Nope. He talked about three things average users can do to make their computers safer:

1. Anti virus software, frequently updated.
2. Firewalls, especially if you have an always on connection.
3. Windows Update.

Computer security isn’t a question of imperviousness–not unless you’re a bank or the military. In most cases, making it hard to break in is good enough to stop the automated programs as well as send the less determined criminals on their way. (This is part of the reason Linux and Mac systems aren’t (as) plagued by viruses–they’re not as typical and that makes breaking in just hard enough.) To frame it in car terms, keep your CDs under your seat–if someone wants in bad enough, they’ll get in, but the average crook is going to find another mark.

What it comes down to, really, is that users need to take responsibility for security too. Just like automobiles, where active, aware, and sober drivers combine with seat belts, air bags and anti-lock brakes to make for a safe driving experience, you can’t expect technology to solve the problem of computer security. After all, as Mike points out, social engineering is a huge security problem, and that’s something no program can deal with.

I think that science and technology have solved so many problems for modern society that it’s a knee jerk reaction nowadays to look to them for solutions, even if it’s not appropriate (the V-chip, the DMCA, Olean), rather than try to change human behavior.

Update (May 10):

I just can’t resist linking to The Tragedy of the Commons, which does a much more eloquent job of describing what I attempted to delineate above:

“An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.

In our day (though not in earlier times) technical solutions are always welcome. Because of previous failures in prophecy, it takes courage to assert that a desired technical solution is not possible.”