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Staying Safe behind a Firewall
by Max Drayman,
26 November 2001

WINNERonline Casino TechWINNERonline is launching a series of articles about the technical side of online gambling. The first two articles are about firewalls, and how they protect your computer from intrusions while you're online.

Got a technical question about online gambling? Send us an e-mail and you might see your question in a future article.

Most people like to think of their web access as if it were a keyhole: they shove stuff out and stuff comes back but it all goes through a single, controlled point. Nothing could be further from the truth, however.

In fact, your computer has hundreds, sometimes thousands, of channels through which it communicates to the various services out in the Internet. So, as unsettling as it may be, it's more like looking at the web through a very large piece of Swiss cheese than a single keyhole.

Those holes are called "communication ports", or simply "ports", and despite the unfortunate name similarity they're not visible like the ports on the back of your computer. These ports are created and maintained by communication software and unless your computer has been told otherwise, it listens and responds to pretty much anything or anyone that attempts to talk to it - good or bad.

Statistics from a few months ago indicate that the average web-connected computer on a high-speed link sustains about a dozen "intrusion" attempts per day, of which maybe one or two a week are worthy of concern. A computer on a modem experiences less than half that number. And one in a hundred intrusion attempts is done by someone skillful enough to get anywhere with it.

What all of that means is, give or take a little, your computer will be successfully broken into once every two years or so. And that's not exactly a good thing.

Since all web communication takes place through one port or another, they are by necessity the hacker's points of attack. They're not unlike the points of access into your home; if you leave your front door wide open when you take off for the long weekend, you probably wouldn't be too surprised if someone decided to walk through it.

The same is true with the ports on your computer: if they're not closed, they're open. Given this a good, healthy precautionary approach is "lock it up unless you've got a good reason not to."

So how do you protect your computer from intrusions? The answer is with firewall security software. Firewall software restricts access to your computer's communication ports per a set of access rights called "rules."

Basically, a firewall has rules that determine who can and can't access your computer, through which ports that communication can take place, and what kind of communication is allowed through that port.

Personally, I have sustained three severe attacks in as many years but none in the past 18 months, which is how long I've been using special firewall security software. The question then is, "does everyone need to be using some sort of firewall?" It's a personal decision, but people who spend a lot of time online should seriously consider installing and running a firewall.

Once you've made that decision, the next thing to look at is how you go about getting one and how a firewall will affect your online gaming experience. That's where we'll pick up next time.

Read Part 2 of this article.

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