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Windows 98 end of life, Wireless network security crisis

Rethinking SP2:

If you look back into the news letter archive at 9/12/2004 you’ll find an article I wrote encouraging users to apply Service Pack 2 (SP2) as soon as possible to their Windows XP computers. I later sent to Microsoft for the SP2 CD which came in only 5 calendar days including a weekend! I did so to be able to provide it as a service to my Safe-PC customers. Since that time I have had the opportunity to apply the SP2 CD to several computers and I can say beyond any shadow of a doubt, SP2 has it’s share of problems. Most of the problems I have seen with SP2 surround network connectivity meaning if your XP computer is on a network, expect problems accessing network resources. I wrote to Microsoft regarding the problems I encountered. They confirmed that it was not my imagination and, other than removing SP2, they have no immediate fix. Nice kick in the pants that was.

Therefore! I am now back to taking my usual wait-and-see position as it relates to SP2 (and most other new MS products for that matter). In order to remain as least reasonably secure using XP I now recommend that users perform all of the individual updates found at the Windows Update web site, skipping over the SP2 update message every time and going into Custom Updates. Surprising as it may be, this too is not without its’ problems. Of the 28 or so individual updates required after a new install of XP, 2 or 3 will give you errors when installing them and fail. The only way to apply these stubborn patches is to boot XP into “Safe Mode” before going to Windows Update, going into the update history menu, opening the failure detail window, downloading the update files to your computer and installing them from there rather than applying them from the web which does not work. Safe Mode instructions are available in the help menu. You can read some other comments I have made regarding this topic on a forum that I post to by clicking here.

Google shows interest in SurfSafely

I’m not exactly sure where this road will lead but I received an interesting call recently from Google’s AdSense Partner Development office in New York. We’ve all seen their ads at other leading web sites and portals and, as far as I can tell, they consistently deliver relevant ads that actually enhance the user experience rather than detract from it. Ad filtering of inappropriate content is another hallmark of their AdSense program that impresses me. That said, SurfSafely.com has partnered with Google in what I consider to be a test program for relevant ad delivery at our portal site. I’m hoping it generates enough revenue to offset some of the costs associated with creating and maintaining a web directory the size of SurfSafely.com. One thing I can say for sure is it’s not likely to make me independently wealthy anytime soon. It still is and probably always will be a negative cash flow labor of love. My rewards come when others tell me of the benefits they reaped as a result of my work.

Please help me police the ads you may see Google serving up here. If you spot anything inappropriate contact me via the feedback page at SurfSafely. I’ll be adding a new subject line called “Inappropriate ads” for this purpose.

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Windows 98 end of life

You knew it was coming and this time it looks like they really mean it. Windows 98, ME and NT4 have reached their end of free support life cycle. December 31st is the cutoff date. NT4 users (mostly business) have a small reprieve in that they can pay to have continued support for at least a couple of more years. All other users of 98 and ME, if you plan to continue using it I strongly urge you to go straight to the Windows Update web site right now and apply every critical update you can find there before it’s too late. It is possible that MS will simply stop development of new patches and allow users to continue updating their 98 and ME computers after the cutoff that will include updates developed up to the cutoff date but I can’t say for certain that this will be the case. They may be nice this way or they may pull the plug entirely. Difficult to say. All I can say is don’t chance it. Get what ever updates you need now and hope for the best later.

For some of you, this may be the perfect opportunity to jump the MS ship once and for all and dive straight into the MAC world. There is always some apprehension when making wholesale changes like this but I have more than a few clients who are thoroughly fed up with Windows PCs enough to be seriously considering the switch. If you’re at all on the fence take a look at this article I found in The Wall Street Journal with comments from readers AFTER they made the switch to MAC.

I wrote to Apple to ask if they would donate some MAC gear to SurfSafely for me to review for you. The silence to my request has been deafening. If anyone has a G3 or G4 desktop or laptop they’re considering donating to a school or some other organization, please consider sending it here instead so I can acclimate myself to the MAC world and report to you how hard or how easy it was to make the switch. I honestly believe I’ll be responsible for a great many new MAC sales that Apple will never know came from here. Oh well. Like I said, I’m not in it for the money because the money just hasn’t been there. I’m in it to help others.

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Wireless network security crisis

Question: Are wireless networks safe and secure?
Answer: They can be, but….

Ever wonder how to share one Internet connection with more than one computer in your household or office? Very simple. Just go out to your local computer retailer and pick up a Wireless Router. This really two pieces of hardware in one. The first piece is the Router. Its’ job is to direct traffic from multiple computers through the one connection. Think of it as a stoplight at a highway entrance ramp. One lane gets a green light while others get red preventing crashes at the entrance ramp. Most routers also have a built in firewall which prevents unauthorized vehicles from coming down the entrance ramp the wrong way accidentally or deliberately. This is a good thing because most users still do not have firewall software installed on their computers. It makes a reasonable alternative and firewalls all computers on the home network at once.

The second piece of hardware is the wireless access point (WAP), a radio transmitter/receiver designed to carry digital signals between your computers and the router. Most all are based on the 802.11x standard. 802.11b is the oldest but still not outdated and still being sold new in stores. 802.11a and 802.11g are the most current. 802.11n is on the horizon. In most cases newer equipment is reverse compatible with older meaning I can buy a 802.11g WAP and still connect to it using my laptop with an 802.11b wireless network card.

The beauty of wireless? No wires. The danger of wireless? No wires.

What basically happens is the WAP broadcasts a signal that says “Here I am! Connect to me!” Computers on your network see this signal and say back “Okay, tell the router to give me a network address.” What SHOULD happen at the time is the WAP ask the computer for a password with which to encrypt data flowing between them to prevent unauthorized access. The computer should respond with the password then handshake with the WAP. The router responds through WAP with “Okay. Your address is 192.168.0.100.” The next computer to sign on gets assigned 192.168.0.101 and so on. This is how the router knows which computer to direct network traffic to.

If the password/encryption setting is none, any computer within range of the WAP can simply connect to the network and begin using its resources unrestricted. If any of the computers on the local network share files and those directories are not password protected then any computer on the network can access those files unrestricted. Obviously, all computers on the network also share the Internet connection. Anyone driving by with a laptop and wireless network card can simply pull over and, at the very least, begin using your Internet service. Why would they do this? The thrill of doing it plays a large role. Some also do it to send spam using someone else’s service. Better to get their neighbor’s service canceled for spamming rather than their own. I’ve even seen I.D. theft scams conducted through unsecured wireless networks.

So who sets their WAP to no password/encryption? Most manufacturers! Out of the box, no security whatsoever. Am I making an indictment of wireless hardware manufacturers? You bet I am! It is absolutely inconceivable to me that any computer hardware manufacturer would leave the computers of their customers completely vulnerable to outside attack. But then again, they’re just following the lead of some other world renowned software publisher who shall remain nameless here. To secure them properly means changing the passwords, enabling the encryption. Leaving the default values as they are is the single most dangerous thing any user can do when installing a wireless network. Period.

Do people actually leave their settings at the default values? To answer this question I conducted a little survey of my own. Using only software I found was freely available online and hardware that required little or no modification at all, I created my own little War Driving setup consisting of my laptop, an 802.11b wireless card, magnetic mount roof antenna (which at these frequencies are quite small), a Garmin GPS placed between my moon roof and sunshade and network sniffing software. In the town I surveyed there are approximately 3100 homes. I canvassed virtually every street in that town, at least 90% or 2800 of the homes. Of the 2800 homes I passed 420 had wireless networks in them broadcasting “Here I am! Connect to me!” That’s an amazing 15% of all homes in this town with wireless networks! Never did I expect such a high concentration but then again this was a very affluent area.

Here’s the real eye opener. Of the 420 wireless networks discovered, precisely 298 of them were completely unsecured! If I’m able to extrapolate, that would mean literally 71% of all homes in America with wireless networks are completely vulnerable to outside attack. SEVENTY ONE PERCENT!!! Of the remaining 29% I estimate that fully half of these still use the default router passwords meaning that, as opposed to walking through a wide open door I might actually have to turn the door handle to gain entry. Very little effort indeed.

Have I gotten your attention yet? Boy I sure hope so. And forget what the casual hacker can get access to. Think for a moment what Uncle Sam might be looking at from overhead. Think I’m kidding? Think again! I cannot stress this one point enough. As it applies to wireless networks, Never, EVER open the box, plug it in and play. If you’re so inclined it will be more like open the box, plug it in and pray. It’s asking for trouble. And who is trouble to deny an open invitation?

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