Friday, November 30, 2007

Botnets: Is Your Computer Commiting Crimes?

KXL Tech Expert Segment for 30 November 2007

By some estimates one in four computers connected to the internet is working overtime – without your knowledge. These hijacked systems could be hacking into computer systems, stealing identities or flooding websites in an attempt to shut them down. Called “botnets”, these underground, and mostly hidden, networks are being shut down thanks to International law enforcement efforts spearheaded by the FBI.

Protecting your system from becoming a drone in a hacker’s botnet army requires safe computing practices. While some opt for drastic measures such as pulling the plug on your internet connection – you can leave your system running and keep it focused on the tasks you choose and from doing a hacker’s dirty work.

Keep your operating system current.
All computer software – and the operating system (i.e. Windows, Mac OS) especially– requires periodic updates. Security updates and vulnerability patches should be installed immediately to plugs holes in software that can be used to take over your system. For most home users, setting the updates to download and install automatically is usually recommended. To keep your computer at work patched, ask your IT Help Desk for their plan to keep your system up-to-date (they may have special concerns, procedures, or prefer to test updates before they get installed).

Run the latest anti-virus software – regularly.
The anti-virus software you got with your new system last year will only help you squash bugs that were identified last year. If you haven’t updated the data files for your anti-virus software, you may be operating under a false sense of security. All anti-virus software is capable of checking for the latest definition files (the list of what exploits are out there and how to inoculate against them) – but some must be configured to do so.

Look for spyware.
Spyware, like virus infectons, are malicious bits of code completing tasks you never intended. A good anti-spyware program is called “AdAware” (the basic version is free) and will clean your system of known software that could be extracting your personal data and sending it to the cyber crooks. Having a machine full of spyware could make your computer an easy target for enrollment in a botnet's virtual network of evil.

Check your firewall – or get one.
A firewall is a device that sites on your home or office network between the computers you use and the Internet. Acting as a gatekeeper, the firewall prevents unwanted traffic from directly accessing your computer. A “front door” to your home network, you can choose which traffic (and from who) to let in – and keep out the bad guys. You can also run firewall software that monitors incoming network traffic on an individual computer – a handy option for those using one or two computers connected online directly. Most recent operating systems include a built-in basic firewall.

Use good passwords and change them often.
Perhaps you've been tempted by that “special offer” or met someone online who has been dying to meet you (and 100,000 of her closest friends) – but were you the subject of a phishing attack? “Phishing” is a tactic to extract personal information (passwords, credit card numbers, etc.) by posing as seemingly legit websites. Victims often click on enticing offers received by email or in response to notifications that appear to be from a bank or online merchant. If in doubt, close the email and contact that company directly – either by phone (“did you send me this email?”) or by accessing the website directly (i.e. typing the address into your browser manually – don’t click the link from your email), or via. a trusted search engine. “If it smells like a phish...”

Watch for suspicious signs and get help.
Is your computer not quite acting like you think it should? Are you finding it takes longer to perform routine tasks? Are the lights blinking when nobody’s home? Suspicious behavior or degraded performance could indicate your computer is being used in a botnet. Have it checked out by an expert who can monitor system processes and check for other vulnerabilities.

While no single tip will completely block hackers, and new exploits and tactics are being discovered constantly – practicing safe computing will help keep your system out of the hands of the bad guys.

Listen to this report, originally broadcast on KXL-AM Friday November 30: kxl_techexpert-botnets_20071130.mp3 (MP3)

Do you have additional tips? Any horror stories you’d like to share? Drop me an email (techexpert AT brianwestbrook DOT com) or post to the comments – I’m here to help.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Brian Westbrook's 2007 Holiday Gadget Guide

KXL Tech Expert Segment for 23 November 2007

Nespresso Lattissima
For the coffee aficionado in your life – single-serve coffee machines provide a convenient way to serve up a cup o’ jo with push-button ease. Nespresso offers a line of machines ranging from simple entry-level to the deluxe “Top line” model. Now these kitchen gadgets work by placing a coded (where a darker color, cleverly = darker roast) capsule into the top, locking it into place and pressing a single button. My favorite, the Lattissima includes a milk frother (and who can’t love a gadget that comes with a “frother”) makes lattes and cappuccinos – it even cleans itself! The Lattissima is available for $700 or $800 depending on the options and you can buy it online here or check it out at fine kitchen stores such as Williams-Sonoma. If you’re a business owner looking for a gift for the break room, ask about Nespresso’s commercial line.

Sony’s DVD Direct VRD-MC5
Got a pile of old VHS tapes? We just moved and it killed me to lug around a carton of old tapes. One of the questions I get often from blog readers is how to convert old VHS, 8mm, and other old-school format tapes to DVD. Sony recently released a new device that I couldn’t wait to test drive -- it includes a small color viewfinder so you can see what’s going on and doesn’t require a computer. Not only does it transfer movies to DVD, but you can copy high definition videos from certain camcorders add backgrounds to DVD menus – it even includes the ability to transfer
photos from your camera’s memory card onto inexpensive recordable discs … I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on vacation and wish they had something like this in the hotel lobby! To use, connect up your VCR, camcorder or other video device to the Sony VRD-MC5 press record and watch your parents’ old home movies jump generations landing on DVD. The Sony DVD Direct gadget is available online for $200 or you can take it for your own test-drive at the SonyStyle Store (online) at Washington Square. I’ve been digging my way through the carton of tapes in my garage… and now I’ve got room for all sorts of new electronics.

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Amazon’s Kindle E-book reader
For the book worm: At first glance it seems odd Amazon would offer a product that attempts to replace the print book… but the “Kindle” does just that. With wireless connectivity and access to 90,000 titles over high-speed cellular data connections – you can instantly access books, magazines, and newspapers on-demand. It’s $400 and available – you guessed it – on

Fisher-Price Kid-Tough Camera
My niece loves watching me take photos with my digital camera. Unfortunately, equipping this preschooler with a $1500 digital SLR camera like my Nikon D200 – probably not a wise idea. Kid Expert Fisher Price comes to the rescue with a $60 option for the 3-7 year old set… available in blue or pink it takes up to 50 photos and has a dual-eye viewfinder designed for the little one. Plus, since it’s made by Fisher-Price – you know it’s built -- as they say “kid tough”.

Apple iPod Touch
For those on your list waiting until next year for the anticipated next-generation iPhone, give the gift of an iPod Touch. Sporting many features of it’s phone-calling and text-messaging big brother, the Touch has the same display, web browsing and multimedia playback features without contracts data plans or switching carriers. Pick one up at the Apple Store or online for about $300.

What gadgets are you excited about this holiday? Drop me a line if you have gadget-shopping questions or would like to know what to buy me. ;-)

Listen to Brian Westbrook's 2007 Holiday Gadget Guide originally broadcast on Newsradio 750 KXL (Friday 23 November 2007): kxl_techexpert-gadgetguide2007_20071123.mp3

Until next time ... happy shopping!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Too Embarassed To Ask Directions? Google At The Pump

Business Week has the story of Google's plans to offer its popular mapping service in kiosk-form at gas pumps. Initially 3,500, and set to expand based on demand, the service won't bring in ad revenue for the online ad giant.

Read more online from Business Week.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Silence Pesky Cell Phone Users, Illegally.

The NY Times ran a story on cell phone jammers -- devices that block cell phone reception around them -- and the debate over their use is intriguing.

Make no mistake, use of these jamming devices is prohibited by federal law.

That doesn't stop commuters tired of hearing your conversation from pressing the power button on a portable device that will make you think you've traveled outside the coverage area.

Agree with the vigilante approach or not -- there are courtesies both side of the discussion could adopt:

  • Be considerate. Use your mobile phone only where you will not disturb others. The call may be important to you -- the rest of the cafe' may prioritize your discussion differently.
  • Think silent-mode The latest dance track that puts your feet into motion when your friend calls you? Others might prefer to smash your handset with their own feet.
  • Don't spoil the darkness Checking your text messages during a movie can be just a disruptive as answering a call. Avoid both.
  • Take it outside How many times have you been at a dinner table listening to half a conversation while one person at the table takes a call? Take it outside so the rest of the group can enjoy themselves.

Do you have other tips or cell phone courtesies? Pass them along!

Google Announces Mobile Phone Strategy

There will be no one "gPhone".

Deciding instead to concentrate on an open-source mobile phone platform, Google today announced plans to ship a developer kit in the coming weeks.

The first devices to run Google's new phone operating system are expected mid-next year and will not carry the Google brand. Rather, these devices will be made by one of several hardware manufacturers that belong to the newly-announced Open Handset Alliance.

More on this story: