Monday, March 22, 2010

Gigabit Fiber at Home?

Google is getting a ton of publicity about it's Google Fiber for Communities contest. They promise to lay out a really fast fiber network in the winning community, and cities all over the country are putting together applications / proposals touting themselves as the best candidate city.

Amongst Google's claims is that they will provide homes and businesses with Internet connections up to 100 times faster than what currently exists in the community. The expectation/hope is that faster connections will lead to 'new bandwidth-intensive "killer apps" and services, or other uses we can't yet imagine'.

What will a gigabit Internet connection do for me? Not much in today's world. Or next year's world either. Now, I don't want to be perceived as short sighted, but let's be realistic and look at this little analogy to put things in perspective...

Haulin' Bits
Before the Google Fiber days, I had to haul bits back and forth from my ISP to my house by the wheelbarrow full in my little Toyota pickup. Then Google came along and gave me a ten yard dump truck to haul the bits. Great. Now I should be able to get a lot of bits real fast.

But, oh oh, my ISP can only give me a wheelbarrow of bits at a time. And the rules of the Internet say that I have to deliver each load to my house before I can get the next load. (By the way, the new truck goes the same speed as my little Toyota, it can just carry more.)

I can't be mad at my ISP for not filling up my new truck. It would cost them a huge pile of money to be able to load my big dump truck up to capacity each time, even if they could get the bits fast enough. They have lots of customers. While they have the capacity to load up one or two of those dump trucks every minute, they cannot fill thousands of them at once. After all, they have to pay a shipping charge for the bits they distribute to me and their other customers. It's not free.

It gets worse. Even though my ISP has the ability to give me a whole wheelbarrow load at a time, the company that I want to get bits from can only ship out one dump truck at a time. AND, they have to divide that up amongst a thousand customers simultaneously. So, I'd be lucky to get a shovel's worth of bits from them for each trip anyway.

So, I have this great big dump truck, but I can only haul a wheelbarrow worth of stuff each trip. Sure, it might include a shovel full of bits, a bundle of news, a bucket of movie, or even a game or two. But I'm going to have a lot of unused capacity in that truck. Maybe someone will come up with some stuff to fill up the empty space in my new dump truck, so I can boast about hauling bigger loads. But it'll have to come from someone locally, as my ISP's can't afford to haul it in from off their network. I don't know what I'll do with it, and I wonder how long I'll have to wait for it.

Or, maybe they could just fluff up the bits with a bunch of air so it looks like I'm getting a better deal.

More Secure Computing -- Episode 1

Don't Run Your Computer as "Administrator"
One of the most important security measures users can follow to protect their computers from outside attacks is the concept of "least privilege". This means, use an account on the computer configured as an ordinary user with only those rights and permissions you need to get your work done and no more.

For example, for most day to day work on your computer, you do not need to install software, configure network settings, customize your web browser, add/remove hardware, etc. You just need to browse the web, write documents, edit files, and other non administrative tasks. The least privileged user on an XP system is able to do these functions.

However, if you are using Windows XP at home or at work, it is likely that the account you log into your computer with has full administrative privileges. (This is especially true if you are not required to log into your computer. If it just starts up, you are the administrator.) Accounts with administrator privileges have the rights to fully control nearly all aspects of the operating system and software on the computer.

So, you may ask, what's the big deal? Why not have administrator privileges on my account?

The answer is really quite simple. If you are browsing the Internet, or reading emails, and you come across a site/message that has a nasty payload, that bad page or infected message has the same control over your computer as your current account. So, if you are logged in as a user with administrator rights, and you hit a web page with malware scripts to install software to your computer, it's likely to succeed.

But, if you are operating as a user that does not have rights to install software, and hit the same page with malware on it, it is less likely to successfully exploit your system. Is it bulletproof? No, but it will thwart some (many) attacks.

There are some drawbacks in operating with less than administrator rights, most notably the need to switch user accounts to perform tasks that require higher privileges. But it's worth the hassle to help protect your system.

I especially recommend this route for shared computers. If you want to keep that computer running smoothly, don't let everyone have full control of the computer. Set it up with printers, software, networking, etc, and then create "user" accounts for everyone. They'll have what they need to run the computer, but will need to ask permission or request your help to make significant changes.

Don't forget to keep the Administrator password handy, because if you lose it, it's a pain to get control of the system without it.

You can learn more about configuring accounts in Windows XP here.

Windows Vista and Windows 7 Provide More Protection
These operating systems provide users with a little more security by separating elevated privileges from regular user accounts. Windows Vista/7 employs a process called User Account Control that lets you operate as a regular user, but prompts you for credentials to authenticate with elevated privileges to perform certain operations. While this is not a perfect system, you should not bypass or try to circumvent it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Intro to More Secure Computing...Episodes to follow

If you are a Windows user, you have probably been hearing a lot of reasons to worry about viruses and malware on your computer. Especially if you are connected to the Internet. Unfortunately, much of what you read about/hear is true--there are a lot of threats that are easy to fall into and infect your computer.

I'll be writing a short series of blogs about what you can do to prevent (or at least reduce the risk) your computer from being hijacked. I am not going to bother with any detail about Anti-virus software, because if you don't have it already on your Windows computer, you are probably a hopeless case anyway. So, let's go over a listing of the things that you should do in addition to keeping your AV software up-to-date.
  1. Browse the web and read email with a depreciated user account on your Windows computer (Episode 1)
  2. Become a smarter (more suspicious) Internet user. (Episode 2)
  3. Learn to use malware prevention and detection tools (Episode 3)
  4. "There's a sucker born every minute" - don't let it be you (Episode 4)
I invite tips and suggestions from readers. I'd also like to hear about your horror stories about confirmed viruses.