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BITS & BYTES: Safe computing in 2011

By Staff | Jan 5, 2011

This is an incredible time relative to technology. Many things are changing and improving. In 2010, users became aware of an increased rate at which technology vulnerabilities were being exploited to gain access to financial records, financial institutions, identity theft, etc. In 2011, the defense against this will become much easier and almost transparent.

This will happen because of a number of new features being implemented into everyday computer equipment that is designed to keep your information private. One of these features is specifically designed to keep your financial information entirely private and is easily available now.

Many people use their computer(s) to write checks, access bank accounts, order products and services with a credit card, along with other related tasks. If any of this describes your use, then you will be happy to know that there is a way to keep that ultra sensitive personal information available to your eyes only.

It will help, first, to understand the risk. Using the Internet is like standing in a giant crowded auditorium and having a conversation with your friends. Think about this for a second. In this instance a group of people are talking amongst themselves in a room filled with an even larger group of people. Anyone could walk over to any group and hear a conversation. This is a simplified explanation of how communication works over the Internet. Now, imagine you and your friends develop a secret language that only your group knows. This would allow you to talk privately even in a large room full of other people. Other people would still know that you were having a conversation and maybe even the general topic, but they wouldn’t be able to understand the details. This is the effect of something called “encryption.”

Reputable banks, online stores, and other organizations with whom you exchange personal information utilize such encryption so that other entities on the Internet cannot obtain your private info. There is, however, a way that an attacker can obtain personal information even if an encryption policy is being used.

Using a “keylogger” an attacker can obtain your passwords, credit card numbers, pin numbers, credit card security codes, social security numbers, etc. A keylogger is a small program that monitors anything you type and attackers can install these remotely onto your computer via a number of methods described in a previous article. As the keylogger is recording everything you type, it no longer helps that the information is encrypted as the attacker is able to collect your information before it is encrypted.

2011, however, will be the year that this type of attack becomes useless.

AMD and Intel have made advances in technology that allows new computers to run multiple “environments”. Most likely your current computer has an environment configured. This means that when something is installed it effects your entire computer. With multiple environments this is no longer the case. With these new computers, you receive a “Safe Environment” and a “Standard Environment.”

The Standard Environment allows you to run all of the programs you currently run such as PaperPort, Quicken, WordPerfect, Picasa, etc. while the Safe Environment provides fully secure Internet access without any practical chance of malicious software capturing your personal information.

The Safe Environment is just that: SAFE. The Safe and Standard Environments are entirely insulated from each other, which means that even if you have a keylogger or other information collecting software installed on your computer, it is only installed in the Standard Environment and cannot effect the Safe Environment. The Safe Environment is also protected from itself; even if you are tricked into installing a keylogger while in the Safe Environment, it will have no effect on either the Safe or Standard Environment.

Technology has become complex over the years and the popularity grew faster than security was implemented. 2011 will provide many of the missing security features along with improvements that will make computers easier and faster to use. In addition, most companies are developing improvements that won’t require frequent replacements of equipment; most of the improvements that will be coming out in 2011 and 2012 can be applied retroactively to most mid and upper range computers from 2009 onward.

If you have obtained a computer within the last fourteen months, it may already be compatible with multiple environments and the feature may simply need to be activated. If you send information that would like to keep private, check with your IT advisor, MSP, IT department, etc. to see if your computer supports multiple environments.

(Bits & Bytes is a computer troubleshooting advice column provided by Zebis, a single point of contact managed service provider located on Sanibel serving clients worldwide.)