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Are Personal Firewalls Enough? 30 August 2001 Edition
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Million $ Ideas
At last, the contents of Aardvark's "million-dollar ideas" notebook are revealed for all to see!
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Oh dear -- the sky is falling!

Well that's what you'd think if you were to read the newswires every day.

The net is chocked full of viruses, worms, trojans and hackers right?

In fact, it's gotten so bad that the government (by way of the CAB) is going to make it illegal to even be in possession of software that "could" be used to carry out hacking activities.

So now we're all told that we ought to equip our machines with "personal firewalls" and Microsoft is even including a Clayton's firewall with XP (you know the one, the firewall you use if you want to feel safe even though you're not).

While personal firewalls are a great thing and provide vastly more protection than no firewall at all (if you don't have one -- get one NOW!) they do have limitations.

Because these firewalls run on the machine they're supposed to protect they are still vulnerable to some forms of attack -- mainly trojan or virus-based.

A good example is an experience related recently by an Aardvark reader.

He visited a website and found afterwards that the dialer settings on his PC had been altered to ring a different number. Closer investigation revealed that the site was booby-trapped with some Javascript code that had done the dirty deed.

A personal firewall wouldn't have stopped this and a less attentive PC user might not have even noticed the change of number -- potentially exposing them to massive toll charges as their modem called the international equivalent of an 0900 number.

Likewise, there is little to stop an email-borne virus/trojan from disabling your personal firewall in a covert manner -- leaving you under the impression that you're safe when you're not.

Readers Say
(updated hourly)
  • Is the government in the pay of the Taliban?... - Christopher
  • Personal Firewall... - Matt
  • Personal Firewalls... - Mudrat
  • LT Winmodems & Firewalls... - Phord
  • Modem firewalls... - Darren
  • Linux vs MS... - Allister
  • Have Your Say

    So is there a better solution than the Zone-Alarm/BlackIce-type personal firewall?

    Yes there is -- but you'll need some extra hardware.

    Perhaps the cheapest way to do the job is to drag out that old 486 you retired a year or two ago when you bought a new Pentium-based machine, and convert it into a dedicated firewall.

    If you've got the time and know (or are willing to learn) a bit of unix/Linux, you can install any one of a number of operating systems on that old box and set it up as a dedicated firewall. The most popular options are Linux and FreeBSD -- both of which can be set up to become bullet-proof protection against unwanted external intrusions.

    In effect, this machine will act like an isolating transformer between you and the Internet. Unlike a personal firewall, a separate box like this can provide a virtually undefeatable block to hackers who might want to find their way into your PC.

    However, setting up a box like this can be complex for the unix neophyte and many Ma and Pa home-users simply have no interest in getting to grips with awk grep and vi.

    So... do I spot a potentially lucrative void in the market here?

    Which hardware vendor will be first to launch a widely distributed and reasonably priced dial-up modem with inbuilt firewall?

    Most DSL modems make a half-hearted attempt to provide firewall services -- so why not dial-up modems?

    It would not be difficult or expensive to produce a modem that connects to your PC via a network cable and provides an easily configured and controlled firewall for home PC users and, in light of all this media hype about hackers and Net-dangers, I'm sure they'd sell like hotcakes.

    Would you pay an extra $100 to buy the modem with a firewall in it?

    Maybe there already is such a device -- in which case my question would be why on earth isn't someone marketing it properly and making a fortune by capitalising on the media hype that provokes such (understandable) paranoia amongst Net users?

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