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Are ISPs Doing Enough To Educate? 30 January 2002 Edition
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Today I'm continuing what has turned out to be a series of articles that look at the local ISP industry, warts and all.

The catalyst for today's column is the experience of a friend who suddenly found their Internet account for December was ten times the normal amount (they're a light user who pays by the hour).

On investigation, it turned out that someone else had been using their dial-up account, racking up many hours of "free" use at my friend's expense.

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Now this friend is very much representative of a huge percentage of Net users around New Zealand. They're not particularly computer literate and are using an "out of the box" install of Windows, complete with Internet Explorer and the Outlook email software.

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    Like so many others, this person was blissfully unaware of the need to keep a constant vigil for the latest security patches -- and they didn't know that all but the latest versions of Outlook suffered from some hideous security holes that left their computer system as open as a gaping wound.

    It's little wonder therefore that the security of their machine appears to have been compromised and their valuable Internet login ID and password stolen by some malevolent idiot.

    Their situation is almost certainly not unique, naive (aka: average) Net users are having their machines compromised every day -- simply because they're not computer "enthusiasts" who do more than read the manuals that came with their computer.

    Of course the ISP concerned says that the unauthorised use of my friend's account is not their problem or responsibility and they expect the bill to be paid promptly.

    On checking the ISP's website, I found some very good information on viruses and security matters in general, although it doesn't seem to mention the need to check and apply security patches. However, this absolutely critical information was hidden away in the "help" section and didn't seem to be a part of the sign-up process.

    As a result of this low-profile positioning, my friend had never read all the warnings and advice -- after all, they use their connection mainly for email and, when you're paying for access by the hour, there's little incentive to wander around the ISP's site looking for nuggets like this.

    Of course the more cynical amongst us might suggest that since the ISP is going to make some good money out of incidents such as the one which affected my friend -- there's little incentive for them to educate new Net users is there?

    So the question has to be -- are ISPs doing enough to educate their users -- and if not, why aren't they sharing the responsibility and cost of poor security?

    Remember -- that users who aren't aware of the importance of good security are actually a danger to other customers so you owe it to all your users to ensure they're aware of the need for good practice

    Now there *are* some ISPs that are doing a good job. -For example, IHUG are sending out regular emails to warn users when new viruses appear on the scene -- albeit this email also doubles as a sales pitch for their "iSpy" virus protection service.

    Maybe it's time that a new user's introduction to the Net includes a short online tutorial and test (which users must pass before being given unfettered access). This tutorial could ensure that they are aware of the need for proper attention to security issues and an awareness of what spam is, how to minimise it, and why they should never send it.

    Of course it wouldn't hurt to throw in some information on other "dangers" such as the numerous scams which proliferate ("Earn Money From Home", etc).

    It should be remembered -- ignorance is a dangerous thing and most Net newbies are loaded with it.

    Although my friend was on a "per hour" account, it's worth noting that in the case of some ISPs, even those on a flat-rate account can find themselves hit with a huge bill if their login ID/password is stolen. XTRA for example will charge $2.50/hr if two users are logged into the same flat-rate account -- and you'll have no idea that this is happening unless you religiously check your online account balance -- but who does that with flat-rate anyway?

    Hey, perhaps it's time for ISOCNZ (sorry, Internet NZ) to poke their head out of the dark abyss in which they appear to have hidden themselves, and create a suitable online tutorial for local Net users. ISPs could then include a link and recommendation to this site as part of the sign-up or login process.

    The results can only be good -- fewer complaints from naive users, fewer arguments over account charges, and a safer surfing environment for everyone.

    If any ISPs are interested in such a non-partisan tutorial, let me know and I'll do my best to try and organise something (with InternetNZ's help or without).

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