Business and Home Security Converging

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2006-09-28 Print this article Print

Opinion: The characteristics of the home and business computing markets are becoming similar in many important ways, even with respect to security.

I must say Im surprised at the flood of mail I got from my last column, which suggested that ISPs get more aggressive about security. Ill be following it up after I do some more research, but something a vendor said to me recently was both interesting and related. The vendors argument was that consumer computing is beginning to resemble corporate computing more and more, largely as a result of the increasing percentage of notebooks being sold to consumers.

In fact, they said that notebooks are now the majority of computer sales to consumers. This may be old news to everyone else, but it hadnt clicked with me yet. The vendors point had to do with physical security, saying that 10 percent of all notebooks will be stolen at some point. Oh well, physical securitys another good topic I ought to get back to.

But it also means that consumer computers are becoming more like corporate computers in terms of security. Many of the concerns we have for corporate notebooks apply just as well to home notebooks in the current environment.

A desktop computer at home protected by a security software that is kept up to date is hardly invincible, but its pretty well-protected. The vast majority of garden-variety attacks it is likely to encounter will be stopped, especially if the user doesnt engage in gratuitous risky behaviors, such as surfing arbitrary porn sites and following links in unsolicited e-mails.

All of this follows for home notebooks as well, but they have numerous other concerns. Users with notebooks, even home users, often take those notebooks out of the base network to other locations. They connect to the Internet in hotels. They go to coffee shops. They go to college and connect there, or at friends houses. Maybe they even go to Mom and Dads house and connect through their wireless router.

Microsoft is investigating reports of a new PowerPoint zero-day exploit hitting select business targets. Click here to read more.

When they are out on the road in this way, they may be exposed to more risks than they are used to, and their local defenses, such as a personal firewall and anti-virus, may not be as formidable as they are at home, where perhaps they have a better (or at least different) perimeter defense. They may end up subject to attacks for which they are unprepared, such as "evil twin" attacks by rogue wireless access points.

If they become compromised in some way and they come back home and reconnect to the network, the odds are good that other systems on the network will be compromised as well.

All of these are old stories to business network administrators, and doubtless there are still many businesses, generally the smaller ones, that are as vulnerable as the average home. But for many years there have been tools available for businesses to protect themselves, consultants to help set them up and an understanding that vigilance is necessary.

Home users are still, by and large, clueless about all of this, even as the computer industry sells them more and more dangerous equipment. Its something like putting a truck in the average drivers hands and calling it an SUV. Some people just dont know how to drive those things, and dangerous situations ensue.

To me this phenomenon reinforces my arguments that ISPs need, in the long term, to act more like responsible IT departments and use products and techniques to enforce rules that to many people now might seem intrusive.

Its not the same thing; in a business your computer belongs to the company and you dont (or at least you shouldnt) have the same rights, for instance to privacy, that you should have with respect to your ISP. But you cant demand security and then deny any tools to implement it, especially when users are exposing themselves and everyone to all manner of dangers. Without a middle ground things will only get worse.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog. More from Larry Seltzer
Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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