Security of computers is important in nearly all technology-dependent industries that utilize computer systems. It is better referred to as computer security. Often, information on a computer is open to few threats lest the computer is connected to a network. Today, the use of networked computers has increased dramatically and this has come not without some issues. Information is now more vulnerable to risks. As computers become increasingly connected in networks, including the internet, organizations and individuals are becoming more worried over unauthorized access to their data. This paper examines the main aspects of computer security and recommends ways of improving the security system. It also clarifies the difference between hackers and crackers, and highlights about social engineering.
Security of computers may involve either prevention or detection of illegitimate access to a computer and its contents. Prevention strategies help in stopping intruders from getting into a system. Conversely, detection measures help one know if a system was accessed broken into.
The main goal of computer security is to protect resources contained in a computer system from natural disaster, corruption, and theft, while at the same time allowing access of these resources to the legitimate users. Therefore, the key technical aspects of computer security are often represented by three key concepts: availability or authentication, confidentiality, and integrity (Kinkus, 2002). These aspects can also be identified as the main goals of secure computing (Newman, 2009, p.226). Pachghare (2010, p.1) has highlighted availability as the most significant element of computer security. It refers to the extent to which a computer system is accessible by authorized users depending on the requirements of the system. The term availability implies that resources, more so information, are accessible to authorized users. Pachghare (2010, p.1) has noted that confidentiality was previously the most significant aspect of computer security, but this has changed with the changing use patterns and expectations of computer users in contemporary times. Therefore, the priority of modern computer security has shifted to making sure that systems are inevitably reliable even with the existence of various malicious attacks such as denial of service threats.
Confidentiality and integrity are also key issues of computer security. It implies that information should not be accessed by unauthorized users; or rather, only authorized parties can access protected resources or information. It describes computer security in terms of secrecy or privacy. This aspect is demonstrated where a computer system administrator sets or gives individual users rights to access resources. Often, it involves a number of concerns (Newman, 2009, p.226): establishing what information (resources) are confidential, “identifying those who can access the resources”, deciding the rate of accessing resources, identifying parties that can alter the resources, and setting permissions to alter the status of resources. According to Newman (2009, p.226) availability and confidentiality are subset of integrity. Integrity implies that resources should be protected against unauthorized alterations that are not visible to the authorized parties. Most of the cracking activities involve compromising the integrity of information.
Even though the three elements are the key concerns in regards to computer security, perhaps internet users should be more worried of the privacy of their information. With the ease of sharing and relating electronic information, it is possible to connect the apparently insensitive information existing in small parts to derive knowledge about a person. It is therefore important that privacy of information is maintained. Privacy involves protection of one’s information even if it appears insensitive.
How we can improve the security of computers
There are a number of ways through which the security of computers can be improved. One is to prevent loss of information by regularly backing up data to different storage media. It is also appropriate to protect computers from abrupt surge of electricity. Another way is to restrict the access of computer. This would involve reducing access of some users and allowing only those who are required to use the system. In this respect, the security of the computer is enhanced since only those who are allowed access can use the computer and the information contained in it.
The security of computers can also be ensured through the design of the system. This is where the system is designed from scratch with security in mind. Experience has shown that the more secure designs are those that do not depend on obscurity, but rather those which everyone is permitted to know since weaknesses are quickly discovered and rectified.
A defense-in-depth strategy is appropriate for creating secure designs. This strategy involves creating several subsystems, which an attacker would have to break in order to harm the integrity of a system and data contained in it. In this way, the security of the computer system is enhanced since it becomes extremely cumbersome to break into the system. It is appropriate that system designers and operators adopted the attitude that even with secure designs security breaches are unavoidable. This ensures that events and activities are tracked so that in case of a security violation, the cause and mechanisms are identified.
Security architecture is also important in the security of computers. It refers to the design objects which illustrate the positioning of controls, as well as their relation to the general IT structure. The role of these controls is to sustain quality features of the system, including integrity, confidentiality, and availability. Security fire wall is an example of such a security architecture based system.
The security of computers can also be improved through the access control lists (ACLs). An ACL is a list of permissions assigned to a specific object. It specifies what operations are permitted on specific objects, on top of which processes or users are allowed to access the objects. There are flaws that are inherent in ACLs. These include inability to allow access to objects to only a single person, and insecure semantics. However, capabilities – a computer model – can resolve these weaknesses. It is worth to note that capabilities are mainly limited to research operating systems, although they can be applied at the language level.
The hardware approach can also increase the security of a computer, or rather a computer system. This involves establishing rules for programs and software that run on the system such that one can impose specific programs that allow utilization of information. Even better, some programming-related strategies promote the dependability of the computer programs. Hardware based security mechanisms are an alternative to the common software-based security systems.
The security of computers can further be enhanced by enhancing the security of the operating system. Such operating systems are founded on the Kernel technology such that it is extremely difficult to penetrate them. This technology ensures that specific security policies are totally imposed within the operating system. This results in highly secure systems. This technology that produces highly secure systems is rarely used since it is hardly understood and it necessitates alterations to the management of the system.
To produce these highly secure operating systems a futuristic, logical, and specific sort of design approach is applied. This is a modern high-tech approach to computer security. However, products generated through this technique are not commonly recognized.
Another way of enhancing computer security is through secure programs and software. To promote portability, a number of commercial operating systems have compromised their level of security. Therefore, they are not capable of protecting the application software running on them. In this case, the individual software or programs should be capable of resisting malicious attack. This necessitates that the coding of the software or program is done under the best practices to ensure that the product is strong enough to defy attacks. Due to the intricacy of software it is extremely difficult to completely assess the security of computer systems.
A number of technologies for ensuring security of information are in use today. These include firewalls, encryption, and antivirus. A firewall is a system that protects a computer system, including a computer network from intrusion by limiting flow of traffic based on the set parameters. Encryption is a cryptographic technique that is used to protect information on transit by concealing it. This approach is practical in securing transit information. Antivirus software try to identify, prevent, and remove malicious programs and computer viruses from a computer system.
The difference between hackers and crackers
It is not uncommon to find the terms hacker and cracker being improperly used interchangeably. However, these two terms have different meanings. Hackers are people concerned mainly with the complex and obscure workings of computer operating systems. Hackers are programmers who understand well a number of programming languages as well the available operating systems (TechTarget, 2003). They continually seek more knowledge, which they often share for free. Hackers have no intentions of damaging data but rather seek to discover weaknesses in computer systems as well as the cause for such weaknesses. Nonetheless, although hackers do not damage data intentionally, their activities may result in damaged data.
Hackers are described by a characteristic attitude (Raymond, 2001): that the “world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved”, “no problem should ever have to be solved twice”, “boredom and drudgery are evil”, “freedom is good”, and that “attitude is no substitute for competence”. To be a hacker, one has also to acquire some basic skills. These include knowing how to program, learning to use and operate one of the Unix systems, understanding the hypertext markup language and how the World Wide Web operates, and understanding of the English language (Raymond, 2001).
On the other hand, crackers are people who break into a system remotely with the intention of causing harm. Crackers injure the integrity of data intentionally after gaining unauthorized access. Crackers can cause problems to their target victims, including damaging data, or illegitimately preventing authorized users from accessing a service. It is easier to identify crackers than hackers since crackers activities are malicious.
There are certain tools that crackers utilize for their malicious activities. These include reconnaissance and social engineering. Reconnaissance refers to “the process of gathering information about a specific target (TechTarget, 2003). As the name suggests it involves spying on targets so that the cracker can develop good strategies for attacking the target. Crackers often use the social engineering technique to do their reconnaissance.
Social engineering is a tool or rather a technique that crackers use to penetrate a computer network or system. It involves manipulating, conning, or tricking people into giving out sensitive information that would then be used to access a targeted computer network or system (Goodchild, 2010; TechTarget, 2003). Social engineering can either be an alternative or a complimentary process to the more technical process where a hacker or cracker attempts to exploit a weakness in the system to obtain access. According to Mitnick (2004) social engineering offers an easier way of accessing a computer system as opposed to cracking a system. It is worth to note that Mitnick is a reformed computer criminal who often used social engineering to break into computer systems. Actually, he is credited for popularizing this concept for application in the Information technology field (Anderson, 2001, p.17). Abraham and Chengalur-Smith (2010) agree that social engineering has continually become a useful tool for attackers to spread their malicious programs. Often, the attacker using social engineering to break into a computer system does no come into direct contact with the victim. One example of social engineering that is common in modern times is e-mail phishing. Phishing is a technique that criminals use, often in online communication, to obtain sensitive information from the unsuspecting persons by falsely posing as dependable entity. In e-mail phishing, the criminals use the email technology as the medium of communication. In fact, phishing is usually done through instant messaging and e-mail. Social engineering has previously been used successfully to access systems and cause harm to organization.
Janczewski (2008, p.193) has highlighted that in social engineering the attacker attempts to “heighten or minimize one of the victim’s psychological arousal” in order to direct the victim to act in a planned way. For instance, an attacker may excite a victim by informing him that he has won a huge amount of money, where after, the attacker uses this excitement to retrieve information from the victim.
Social engineering may also involve impersonations and dumpster diving (TechTarget, 2003). Impersonation is a technique where the cracker masquerade as a person of higher authority and use that to obtain necessary information from the unsuspecting victim. Dumpster diving is where an attacker looks into wastebaskets for waste materials that holds information like a network map, secret codes, and IPs. According to TechTarget (2003) this techniques is dirty but effective.
Other techniques employed in social engineering include pretexting and baiting. Pretexting involves coming up with a scenario and using it to engage a target in a way that will make the victim disclose sensitive information, or do something that he or she would not likely do under normal situations. Baiting exploits a target victim’s greed. The attacker writes a malicious program in an electronic medium and places the storage medium in a location that the victim will ultimately find it. The curiosity of the victim drives him or her to explore the medium and a malware get’s into the system.
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