A Guide to Computer Network Security

Computer network security is just as essential as computer security when it comes to protecting your sensitive information. If hackers or identity thieves break in to a poorly protected wireless or VPN network, your computers will surrender their contents, thinking they're talking to an authorized network device. Fortunately, there's an array of network security tools to keep unauthorized people out.

Network Security Begins with the Router
All routers include some level of network security features. These features vary, so it's a good idea to shop for a router, especially a wireless router, with as many network security options as you can get. Once you've got the router, spend a few minutes to configure it.

  • Change the router's default settings. Every router has default administrative settings that enable you to log in and get the network running. Hackers know these settings, and leaving them is a sign of poor network security. Change the default settings, choosing a network ID, username and password that are all unique. Avoid obvious things like your name or the name of a family member. Also avoid using personal information, such as a birthday or social security number, because if a hacker cracks it, you've just given out information that could be used for identity theft. The strongest passwords and IDs are random combinations of letters and numbers, at least 20 characters long.
  • MAC address filtering. This feature provides strong network security by limiting the devices that may connect to your network to a small and specific list. Each device is identified by a unique series of letters and numbers, known as the MAC address. When you enable MAC address filtering, devices that are not on the list won't be able to connect to your router.
  • Enable WPA2 encryption. Adding encryption to network security prevents unauthorized people from intercepting communications between devices. WPA2 encryption requires all devices to use a designated password to connect to the wireless network. Some routers allow you to program your own encryption code, while others automatically generate and distribute passwords using an external interface.
  • Establish static IP addresses. A router that uses dynamic IP addresses isn't the best choice for network security. Set your router only to accept static IP addresses, and then tell it to accept only the IP addresses you manually enter. You can then assign these addresses to devices on your network. Hackers won't know the static IP addresses and won't be able to get the router to assign dynamic ones, keeping them out of the network.

Firewalls and Network Security
Think of a firewall as a border crossing. Everyone who wants to cross must stop, show an ID and answer a query before being permitted to cross the border. Users that present suspicious identification information are denied crossing or detained for further questioning. A personal firewall enhances network security by blocking unwanted connection attempts and notifying you when they happen. This lets you monitor your network security by providing you with information about users attempting to contact your computer. Firewalls also alert you to outgoing contact requests by malicious software that may already be installed on your computer.

Viruses and Spyware
Most network security threats involve malware or spyware that antivirus software can't detect. However, the presence of these other threats does not mean that computer viruses have gone away. On the contrary, many viruses today are written by professional programmers, not just smart kids who want to see what they can do. You need good antivirus protection if you want to protect the security of your computer.

In addition to good antivirus software, a network security suite requires antispyware programs. Spyware ranges from fairly innocent programs that collect marketing information to extremely malevolent software designed to steal your personal information and wreck your computer. The best software packages fight spyware and viruses with a single program that allows you to adjust your network security as needed by enabling and disabling some security features.

Online Threats to Network Security
The same rules that apply to good PC security also aid network security. Never open attachments or instant messages from people you don't know. These messages can contain viruses or spyware.

If you're using a VPN or remote access, configure the software to require you to change your password periodically. In general, it's a good idea to change your password every 60 to 90 days.

Be careful about accessing your network from shared computers in libraries or hotels. Your network security can be compromised if key loggers have been secretly installed on these machines. Wireless transmissions from unsecured computers can be intercepted by anyone nearby, giving hackers vital information about your network security, including passwords. Always be sure to log off your network after using a shared computer, and delete any browsing history before you log off.

Finally, be careful about Web browsing. Downloading music, torrents or unauthorized versions of software is one of the easiest ways to undo your network security. Hackers prey on those who use the Web illegally by embedding viruses and spyware into files. Download only from sources that you trust, and use a virus checker to scan archives before you open them.

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