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Safety Nets for the Net

A dark side of the digital revolution is the vulnerability of computer systems to intrusion and subversion. Highly publicized software "viruses" and "worms" that occasionally pop up in e-mail and wipe out files only hint at what may be going on out of sight. But while we must heed the alarms, we need not be alarmist.

Government, businesses, and many individuals are already taking steps to stop computer vandals, cyber criminals, and even terrorists. Not that it's a simple task. The opportunities for those who want to break into systems, either for thrill, theft, or harm, are proliferating.

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New software products that build e-mail capability into spreadsheets or word processors open another door for hackers. And lately, "security holes" have been discovered in the popular Unix operating system.

An article in today's Monitor (page 15) looks at heightened security risks faced by consumers who sign up for Internet access through local cable TV companies.

And hackers - or "crackers," the term used for those whose sole purpose is to break into others' systems with criminal intent - are adept at creating "backdoors" into computer networks even without such invitations.

The defenses? Nothing is more important than awareness of the problem, followed by reasonable steps to lessen it.

The Clinton administration has reportedly developed a plan for the FBI to foil intruders from invading the government's civilian computers as well as those in such industries as banking, telecommunications, and transportation. Something along these lines may be necessary, though it raises serious privacy concerns.

Individuals using computers in their homes are perhaps a little less likely to be targeted by intruders. But they can follow the security guidelines provided by many Internet service companies and be careful about opening unfamiliar e-mail messages.

Keep in mind that the Internet and the cyberculture it has spawned are still fairly young. The free-swinging early days are giving way to a growing consciousness that this electronic medium is becoming part of daily life. Computermakers and software designers will have to respond to a demand for more built-in protection.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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