How safe is the Internet? Really? The truth, as always, can be found somewhere between the voices of the fearmongers and those of the smug, complacent souls who'll tell you that nothing bad has ever happened to them, so there's nothing to worry about.
Now that the Internet is a routine and constant part of our lives, we need a realistic assessment of the risks -- and the precautions we need to take to minimize them. We need clear thinking, and it's in far too short supply. We need the insights that can be found in Harley Hahn's Internet Insecurity.
If you've been on the Internet awhile, you'll almost certainly recognize Hahn's name: he's the author of Harley Hahn's Internet & Web Yellow Pages, now in its ninth edition, and widely recognized as the definitive Internet directory. Hahn's Internet books have sold more than 2 million copies. His readers know that they'll get intelligent, no-holds-barred viewpoints from him, and this book's no exception.
Hahn starts by grounding you with enough facts about how the Internet works so you can begin to understand the potential privacy and security issues you face there. Hahn quotes leading law enforcement officials on their views about the need to monitor Internet communications -- quotes that may appear in a new light in the wake of recent events. He also raises what may be the key question for anyone concerned about these issues: "Is it realistic to have an expectation of privacy on the Internet?"
Clearly, one place you can't expect any privacy is your workplace. "When it comes to using your computer and the Internet at work, don't hold your breath waiting for anyone to look out for your interests and your rights to privacy. You are on your own. Your computer is owned by your employer, and they own everything on it, including the love notes your fiancée emailed to you (which you thought you erased) and the records kept by your browser that indicate how many Web sites you visited to do your Christmas shopping on company time."
Hahn asks you to imagine a company investigator at your computer. (Maybe he's there for a good reason, maybe for no reason at all.) What would he do? What would he find? Does your computer log you into your chat and instant messaging programs automatically as soon as you start up? They're exposed. What's hidden in your browser? Only the URLs of all the pages you've visited recently (including that job search site). What software is tracking your Internet excursions in real-time? What recently viewed images are stored in your Windows cache? What can he tell from the names you've given to your files and folders? What keywords will come up when he searches for them? Which of your personal files have been copied onto the server, and are backed up on tapes stored off-site for the next several years?
OK, by now, you know better than to leave tracks at work. What about the rest of your life? Hahn explains how cookies can be used to help remote Web sites keep track of you, and where to find software that can help you control which cookies you will and won't accept. You'll find step-by-step guidance on protecting your browser at home; and learn how to protect Windows from those nasty scripts floating around (Hahn recommends disabling Windows Scripting Host).
You'll also learn what you need to know about shopping on the Web, including techniques for protecting yourself against Internet fraud, five ways to evaluate an online vendor, and when it's OK to specify fake information on a Web site. There's also a chapter on sex and relationships on the Net -- including "8 signs that your spouse is having an online affair."
Notwithstanding that last point, Hahn's goal is not to terrify you. When he thinks you're not at risk, he tells you so. For example, in his opinion, most users don't need personal firewalls, unless they have home networks and high-speed always-on Web connections.
Read Hahn's book. Understand the issues. Follow the procedures. And sleep better at night. (Bill Camarda)
Bill Camarda is a consultant, writer, and web/multimedia content developer with nearly 20 years' experience in helping technology companies deploy and market advanced software, computing, and networking products and services. He served for nearly ten years as vice president of a New Jerseybased marketing company, where he supervised a wide range of graphics and web design projects. His 15 books include Special Edition Using Word 2000 and Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies®, Second Edition.