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Ignorance is Bliss? An Introduction to Internet Security - Part 2

Ignorance Is Bliss?

Editors Note: the following article is targeted at the common Internet user and attempts to avoid technical jargon as much as possible. Its premise is that administrators and programmers already know the shortcomings of Internet security. This article assumes that the reader has covered the previous article for glossary terms and definitions and does not repeat that material.

To begin with, I want to put you in a frame of mind regarding your security. Simply put, you are fortunate if you avoid ever being attacked through means of your computer. You are less fortunate if you have been attacked, but at least were later informed or otherwise discovered it. In that case you go into damage limitation mode and fix whatever problems have arisen.

But what if you don't realize that you have even been attacked? You cannot 'fix' something that you do not know is wrong. Think of someone using your identity to access information to which they should not have access, and creating accounts in places that you do not know exist, and to which you yourself obviously have no access.

Many people are attacked on the Internet but never realize it. On many occasions, when an institution realizes that customers have been compromised, there are allegations that the attack was kept quiet, and damage likewise repaired silently.

In the previous article, we looked over a range of threats that exist for Internet users. In this article, we are going to delve a bit deeper into how these attacks are mounted. The goal is to help you understand how you are being attacked, so that you can correctly assess your level of security as you transact on the Internet.

The Common Login Page: The Common Security Hole

At the core of our identity management problems is the common login page; its vulnerability has fed a whole generation of hackers. The flaw isn't difficult to understand, either. With usernames and passwords entered either partially or completely, the level of security is weak. Upon successful authentication, the hacker has access to the online facility for the duration of the visit, without hindrance.

This is a key point to understand. A site provides a gateway into its environment, and your username and password details are the key. Once in, there are usually no further identity checks, which means that the only protection to site access - to your email, online banking and so on - is your username and password. In technical speak, we would say that after logging in, session and transaction management are continued until the user logs out, or is otherwise disconnected.

The burning question is why did we (a generation of programmers) ever design and perpetuate a system (the common login box) that we knew to be vulnerable? There are a few reasons: simplicity, complacency and evolution are near the top of the list.

Let's look at the process of attacking systems that depend on login boxes.