The Way We Work
January 6, 2010 by Alex Hornbake

Your home office is the heart of your freelance operation, and your home network is most likely your primary link to your work, the world, and unfortunately—security threats. The new year is a great time to consider doing a security audit of your home network and make sure that you’re properly utilizing all the security tools you already have.

Your Computer

Securing your computer(s) is a great place to start. If you don’t have your PC set to automatically update, run Windows update and make sure that you have all the latest security patches. It’s easy, just visit Microsoft’s Update Site—only using Internet Explorer of course—and you’ll be guided through the process.

In a previous post on Optimizing Computer Performance for Online Work Success, the topic of anti-virus and anti-malware was discussed in depth – and the advice still holds true. Even for Windows 7 users, the PCTools suite of free offerings are an excellent way to help keep your system healthy.

For most users, the firewall protection included in Windows or OS X is enough security, but others dealing with sensitive data may want to bulk up their system. See Microsoft’s Knowledge Base article on how to turn on/off the windows XP firewall. These firewalls, by default, generally only block incoming requests, but allow all outgoing traffic, and are blind to whether the application sending data is a Web Browser, or a nasty Trojan transmitting personal data. As mentioned above PCTools offers a free firewall application that offers a bit more protection, and Macworld has a great rundown of several firewall applications for OS X. If you’re curious about how Windows 7’s new firewall will effect your security, you can check out this in-depth article from PC Magazine.

Your Wireless Network

Most of us have some sort of broadband modem connected to a wireless router at home. It’s important that access to this router, and to your home network is secured as well.

Don’t use WEP encryption. Use WPA2 with strong AES keys (These terms have you lost? Visit this Wiki entry on Wireless Security). WEP encryption is very common, but has been proven to be easily hackable in a matter of minutes using readily-available free applications. A strong AES key can be generated from GRC’s Ultra High Security Password Generator. These keys are not convenient, so keep a hard copy in a secure place. (A sticky note on your monitor does not count as “a secure place”!) For more in-depth configuration tips, Computerworld.com has a good tutorial on How to set up WPA2 on your wireless network.

home_network

You can also limit physical access to your network. Put your wireless router in the center of your home so that most of the signal is broadcast inside your home rather than outside. Also, avoid putting your router in isolated or easily accessible areas like the garage. While it’s unlikely, the easiest way to gain access to your home network is with an Ethernet cable plugged right into your router.

You may have your wireless network setup to not broadcast SSID’s, filter MAC addresses, or use static IPs instead of DHCP, and while these methods can help make your network less visible, they aren’t substitutes for strong encryption, and are generally more trouble than they are worth.

Your Router

Change the default password on your wireless router. Most routers come pre-programmed with a default username and password, something like “admin” or “default”. See About.com’s how to guide for more info on how to change this setting.

Your router should also provide an extra layer of firewall protection, and the default configuration is usually “on.” If you’re curious, or need to configure your firewall to allow special traffic, PortForward.com provides a list of most common home routers, and links to how to configure firewalls for special applications.

Your Browser

I would normally recommend that you Disable ActiveX, Java, and Javascripts for non-trusted sites, but I’ve found that it is easier to download Chrome or Firefox. As a Chrome user, using the default settings, I am consistently and accurately warned about malicious sites, and can’t recommend it highly enough.

Behavioral Tips

While good anti-malware software should catch malicious websites as well, it’s worth mentioning how you can act as the best filter for malware, hackers, phishers, etc.

phishing
  1. Make sure you are visiting a site you trust, and not a weird IP address, or slightly misspelled websites like “BankOfAmmerica.com”.
  2. Be wary of suspicious emails or messages on social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook (even from friends you know, it’s increasingly popular to “hack” one user, then exploit their friends).
  3. Watch out for Shortened URLs (ie. tinyurl.com/XXXX), with the popularity of URL Shortening, it’s easier than ever to hide a malicious link at first glance.
  4. Don’t transmit sensitive data on unsecured networks. Check that the URL starts with a “https://” instead of “http://” and that it has a valid certificate-your browser should warn you if the site’s certificate is invalid or expired.

Finally, the most secure state your computer can be in is OFF. While your computer isn’t in use, power it down – not only is it the “green” thing to do, but it also can’t be hacked if it’s turned off!

Alex Hornbake

Freelance Tech Writer

Alex Hornbake is one of several freelance writers on the oDesk Blog team. He joined the oDesk marketplace in 2009, and brings more than a decade of technical expertise to his clients. Alex shares his point of view to help you make informed decisions for your personal and business technology choices.