'CAN SOMEONE get into my computer when I am online?' was one of my wife's first questions after she bought a new laptop. We have a modem connection, so hacking isn't a worry, but now we are about to step up to broadband it's a different story. As most people know, the internet is basically a bunch of connected computers. Surfing the web is all about accessing files on those computers. What most people don't know is that when you connect to the internet, you are not a passive viewer - you become part of the web and your computer is as accessible as any other.
Dial-up connections are fairly safe for a few reasons. Every computer on the internet has an address that distinguishes it from every other computer on the internet. When you have a dial-up connection, that address changes every time you connect, making it more difficult for a hacker to find your computer. The second problem for someone trying to hack into a computer connected by modem is bandwidth. A modem connection is slow enough as it is - if a hacker tried to share that connection the whole surfing process would take so long even the most patient web browser would become frustrated. Finally, because you are not permanently online, a hacker would have to pounce while you were and the likelihood is you would disconnect before he could make much use of the connection. If you have a broadband connection, however,
you are much more vulnerable to hackers. Your address doesn't change, you have plenty of bandwidth - so any hacker activities may go unnoticed - and the connection to the internet is permanent. The most important factor to understand is that your computer is not invisible. A simple program can scan millions of addresses in a few hours. If the program scans your address and your machine is vulnerable, it will let the hacker know.
THE BIG QUESTION is why would anyone bother to hack into your computer? Just because you may not have any top-secret government files on your hard drive it doesn't mean a hacker wouldn't be interested. Your internet account information, for example, might be of interest. Besides what a hacker might glean from your files, your computer could also offer him storage space for files he can retrieve later without getting his hands dirty. I would be upset to find a hacker had posted music or porn on my computer.
There are two ways to protect yourself against hackers, firewalls being the most common. These programs work as gatekeepers, preventing others getting into your computer. Both Windows XP and Mac OS X have built-in firewalls, but they are not normally activated nor are they easily accessed. The Intego NetBarrier is a personal firewall program that also offers protection against direct assaults on your machine. There are several freeware firewalls that can be found through the search engine at www.version-tracker.com.
The second way to protect yourself is by using a NAT broadband router. NAT stands for Network Address Translation, a system that hides the address of your computer from the outside world, making your machine impossible to find.
No software or hardware is going to make your machine impervious to a determined hacker. But most are looking for either an easy opportunity or a real challenge. By placing yourself somewhere in between, you are less likely to become a target.