Your computer has been infected! Your firewall is down!”
To even the most casual computer user, this is bad news. People might not know exactly what a firewall is, but they know it should not be down. So they click on the little button to launch antivirus and cleanup software thinking they’re taking the proper corrective action. But alas, the antivirus warning is a fake, and you’re downloading who-knows-what into your machine.
But you’re too smart to fall for that ploy. You already have an antivirus program and you know this pop-up warning is not it. So you X out of it, thinking you’re taking the proper corrective action. But alas, the X button is a fake, and you’re downloading who-knows-what into your machine.
The problem is, antivirus is not the problem. What is in your system is a Trojan horse, a piece of malicious software that comes in looking like something you need and then camps out in your system. At its best, it’s annoying. At its worst, it will steal your passwords and give criminals access to your PayPal account, your bank account, and anything else that guards your money.
Victor Laurie wants you to forget the idea that hackers are grunge-music rejects living in their parents’ basements. Maybe in the 1990s, when grunge actually existed, this was true. But these days, says Laurie, computer hackers, spam planters, and malware architects are sophisticated, well-funded, organized criminals. They are no longer “teenage males looking to show their virility by proving they can hack your computer,” they are serious cybercriminals, and this is their job — to write new codes and programs every day.
So how does the average computer user, at home or at work, defend himself from the onslaught? Laurie will explain when he presents “The Battle for Internet Security” on Tuesday, September 7, at 2 p.m. at the Computer Learning Center at Ewing. Laurie’s free talk will explain why old-school antivirus software is not enough to keep your computer safe. Visit www.ewingsnet.com or call 609-882-5086.
Laurie is a retired professor of chemistry at Princeton University, whose own experience with computers is as old-school as you get. “My first computer was the UNIVAC,” he says. “Well, it wasn’t mine, there were only six of them in the world.”
Long before there was E-anything or cyber-anything, Laurie used UNIVAC to calculate large mathematical problems on punch cards, and it only took the machine a few hours to solve them. He developed his knowledge by using early computers in his work with the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., and various academic institutions on the east and west coasts.
Laurie was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1935 and grew up wanting to be a scientist in the Atomic Age. In fact, according to a profile by the University of South Carolina, from which Laurie earned his bachelor’s degrees in 1954, Laurie developed an affinity for blowing things up. Unfortunately for him, his age of discovery coincided with the advent of the A-bomb, and his grandfather made him stop because he was starting to scare the neighbors.
Laurie studied quieter science and got his degrees in mathematics and chemistry from South Carolina before heading to Harvard for his master’s and Ph.D. in physical chemistry.
After academic posts at Berkely and Stanford he came to Princeton, where he still lives with his wife.
As Laurie’s career evolved, so did his relationship with computers. He witnessed the first round of hacking when the Internet was just making its name as a legitimate social medium 20 years ago. The bad guys were easy to handle back then, he says. They were more interested in vandalism than personal gain.
But hacking today generates billions of dollars a year and, says Laurie, the business shows no signs of slowing down.
You win! The most blatant scams come in the form of phishing. This is what you see when you get a notice from Bank of America or Visa telling you your account is in jeopardy. The ploy is easy to spot if you don’t have one of these kinds of accounts, but enough people do to make it a worthwhile ruse for criminals to use.
Such ploys are more slick and less obvious than the Nigerian prince who’d like you to store his millions for him until he can get out of the country. But those work often enough that you keep getting them in your E-mail. “The trouble with this is that you can send out a million E-mails, won’t cost you a thing, and all you need are 10 suckers,” Laurie says. “I don’t know who falls for them, but they do. I think I win the lottery about every day.”
Zombies. Phishing E-mails get passed around through “zombie” computers. Somewhere along the line, you’ve picked up a code that steals all your E-mail contacts and goes on to infect others. These attacks do not disrupt you personally, they just use your computer to proliferate without affecting its operations otherwise. If your computer is a zombie, Laurie says, you probably don’t know.
But what this does is spread around those millions of solicitations that eventually will find those 10 suckers. Antivirus software is ineffective, Laurie says, because it isn’t a virus that’s causing all the trouble. It isn’t replicating at the expense of your own computer, so antivirus software isn’t looking for it. Ultimately, the only defense against phishing, Laurie says, is common sense and restraint. “Phishing relies on human greed and human gullibility,” he says.
It gets worse. Nobody ever admits to visiting porn sites, but their popularity might be the largest single factor in how malware gets around. Adult sites, in fact, are almost sure to put you in contact with infected sites, which Laurie says is the major problem in Internet security these days. But an infected site can come from anywhere — even the New York Times became infected once — and site owners are not likely to know until much later.
Infected sites do not look sick. They just come infected with a code that is so sneaky, you don’t even have to click on a link or a photo. This leads to what is called “drive-by downloads,” which refers to a piece of malware getting into your system without you doing anything.
Once in your system, the malware can sit around for days or weeks, lurking and snooping, before finally popping up to tell you “Your computer has been infected! Your firewall is down.”
Once you start getting popups, anything can happen. “These programs are very sophisticated,” he says. “They can look like your own security software.”
How the bad guys win. For the average person, the impulse to rid a perceived threat can outweigh the knowledge of what that person is facing. And indeed, the window warning you of imminent system collapse might actually rid you of the annoying popup. Often the popup is advertising a product you can actually buy. “You pay $25 with your credit card and then they have your credit card and your $25,” Laurie says.
Some Trojan horses simply want to plant a spambot that makes your computer a zombie. But things get dangerous when you download a keyword logger. This tracks your online usage and registers your passwords so that someone, somewhere can help himself to any and all of your accounts.
How to protect yourself. First off, antivirus software, though inadequate, is better than nothing, Laurie says. It will help to have it. But you have to keep it updated.
Then again, even if you update your antivirus definitions every day, you’re still behind the curve. Criminals write new codes all the time, Laurie says. The essence of antivirus protection is that the software needs to recognize patterns. Until those patterns are established, antivirus software will not recognize a virus.
Still, Laurie says, you should have some form of antivirus protection. The odds of being the first person hit with a new virus are long, so you don’t want to get caught by Johnny-come-lately viruses that easily could be defended against.
A better bet is intrusion prevention software. This kind of software recognizes patterns in codes but also functions on heuristic patterns — the way a piece of code behaves. If a particular code starts triggering certain actions, intrusion prevention can catch it.
The downside. Intrusion prevention and antivirus software come with a price that has nothing to do with money. In fact, many solid antivirus programs, such as AVG, or intrusion prevention programs, such as WinPatrol, are free in their basic forms.
The trade-offs are speed and convenience, Laurie says. The more programs you have to defeat malware, the more time and effort it will take your computer to operate normally.
Another major drawback is the “Would you like to proceed” windows that constantly pop up when running intrusion prevention software. “That’s what did in Windows Vista,” Laurie says — the need for people to constantly click yes or no whenever they wanted to do something. And then there’s the matter of which option to pick. “Most people don’t know whether they should say yes,” he says. “Eventually they get frustrated and just click yes.” And that, of course, is as risky as having no protection at all.
Laurie has WinPatrol on his own computer, though he cautions that he’s been working with computers for half a century and knows what he’s looking for. the unfortunate truth is, you just need to keep working on your computer to learn what is normal and what is not.
Backup. Often, Laurie says, the best option for getting around an infected system is to start over again. Cleaning up an infection can be expensive and time-consuming. Better to have a backup copy of your clean hard drive and, in the event of an infection, wipe your system bare and restore it from your external copy.
Another, and increasingly common, method of safeguarding valuable files is storing them in the cloud. In other words, remotely. Google offers a suite of free document storage options through Gmail accounts, for instance. Your files are saved within Google so that if you lose your hard drive, you won’t lose the novel you’ve worked on for the last 14 years. Just make sure you change your passwords on a regular basis.
Cloud or not, though, the most basic piece of security advice Laurie has is to make sure you have a firewall and that it’s always up. “A firewall is absolutely, utterly essential,” he says.
Ultimately, though, Laurie says cybersecurity is as flimsy as any other kind of security to a determined predator. “If someone wants to get you badly enough,” he says, “he’ll get you.”