Durham, N.C. - When it comes to computers, there are few barriers between work and home. That can be good: Having convenient access to a work computer at home or bringing your work computer home is a great help to many Duke employees.
But it can also cause problems.
"If you bring a virus that's on your home computer into your office network, the virus will get out into the university system," said Chris Cramer. He and Rob Adams are information technology security experts at Duke.
"A number of the problems we face are from employees who bring their work computers home and then return them to the office," said Cramer, an IT security officer with the Office of Information Technology.
The threats range from pop-up ads that cause havoc with your web browser to viruses that disable entire computer networks or search computers for personal information such as passwords or Social Security numbers and relay that information to third parties.
Adams and Cramer said the Duke network has many security features in it, but the integrity of the system depends upon the assistance of all employees.
"We can create the most secure computer network and none of it will do any good if a virus is brought into the network from a home computer," said Adams, a director of information technology with Medical Center Information Systems. "We would like employees to think of their home computers as an extension of the Duke network and realize that any poor protection they have on their home computer could affect the university system."
"One aspect of this is the evolution of malicious software, what we call 'malware,'" Cramer said. "Where once it was just a matter of malware causing a lot of nuisances on personal computers, now the trend is toward it causing real problems for individuals and institutions. It's stealing personal information and shutting down entire networks."
The good news is that the vast majority of problems can be reduced by people taking three important but easy steps toward protecting their home computers.
The first step is to create a strong password, Cramer said. A password should have seven or more characters and include a combination of letters, numerals and punctuation marks.
"There's a balance here, because we want the passwords to be complicated enough to make it difficult to steal, but we also want people to be able to remember them," Cramer said. "What I recommend is for people to pick a phrase that's easy to remember then take all of the first letters of the words and include punctuation. Wallace Stevens' poem 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird' becomes #13WoL@aB!
"The key is you don't want to have to write down the password. With all the attention given to hackers stealing the passwords, you shouldn't overlook the threat of passwords being stolen the old-fashioned way by people finding them on paper. A lot of good passwords have ended up being stolen that way."
Anti-Viral and Spyware Protection
Duke provides employees with free anti-viral software that can be downloaded to home computers.
Once the software is downloaded, employees need to ensure that the anti-viral programs run regularly on the computer and are updated regularly, Adams said.
"You can schedule the software to run on your computer daily," Adams said. "The McAfee software that Duke provides also includes software that can download updates regularly. That way you are sure your computer is always being searched for the most recent version of viruses. The one trick is to ensure that your computer is on at the time that it is scheduled to run the anti-viral software. You can also set it to run whenever you first boot up the computer."
Adams also recommends employees use anti-spyware software, such as "Spybot Search and Destroy," which removes programs that monitor activity on your computers. Malicious spyware can send information about your computer to third parties.
The third step is to ensure you regularly download new security patches for your operating system, such as Windows XP or Windows 2000. The easiest way, Cramer said, is to turn on the auto-patching function so that new security patches are automatically downloaded without the user having to take any steps.
The user can also download patches manually. When a Windows system boots up, a small icon appears in the lower right hand corner of the computer to tell you that new updates are available to download. Clicking the icon starts the download process.
"In the old days, patches were hard to install," Cramer said. "Now they're usually just a matter of a couple of clicks of the mouse. Some people do this everyday, but that's not absolutely necessary. Microsoft always releases the major security patches on the second Tuesday of the month, so if you were to do this one day a month, that would be the day."