As previously reported, the alliance is an attempt by Excite@Home, the nation's largest high-speed Internet access provider, to protect its cable modem subscribers from hackers who could try to penetrate a home PC network, delete information on computer hard drives, distribute viruses and even steal sensitive data such as credit card numbers.
Analysts are concerned that consumers with high-speed, or broadband, Internet access connections may face a security risk because their Internet connections are always on, meaning they don't have to log in each time they want to access the Net. Cable modems and digital subscriber lines (DSL) are the two leading methods of broadband connections.
Because broadband users' PCs have constant connections to the Web, analysts fear cable and DSL lines will become an attractive target for hackers.
Excite@Home users will soon be able to download McAfee.com's new personal "firewall" software, which is software that protects sensitive data stored in PCs from being accessed by unauthorized people. McAfee's software will scan the data going in and out of the network and protect home PCs from hackers.
McAfee.com recently acquired the firewall technology by purchasing Signal9 Solutions, a Canadian personal firewall manufacturer and maker of the ConSeal PC Firewall, for $18 million in cash and stock. The ConSeal product, now called McAfee Personal Firewall, is at the heart of the Excite@Home security alliance and will work on DSL and cable modem service, as well as dial-up Internet access. Excite@Home users can use the firewall software for free for up to three months, McAfee.com executives said.
Theoretically, the new firewall can stop the email spamming that nearly caused Excite@Home subscribers to lose access to Usenet, a computer bulletin board system containing topic-specific messages. Last week, Usenet administrators nearly banned Excite@Home from the bulletin board after accusing its users of sending too much spam. The Internet access provider averted the ban after finding out that spammers surreptitiously used Excite@Home's network to send their email.
McAfee.com, a subsidiary of Network Associates, makes antivirus and security software. The software is available as a download from the Web.
Symantec, a McAfee.com rival, recently released similar firewall software called Norton Internet Security 2000.
Giga Information Group analyst Rob Enderle said it's critical for subscribers of cable and DSL services to protect themselves with personal firewall software.
"Otherwise, you're just playing Russian roulette," he said. "Someone can get access to your computer because they think it's funny. And if you have personal finance information on your hard drive, you don't know what they'll do."
The problem comes from a type of Internet marker called an "IP address." When a user logs on to the Net, they are assigned an "address." That marker helps information such as email get to its proper destination. But that same address can pinpoint the location of a user and possibly help a hacker gain unauthorized access to that user's network.
Many cable and DSL service providers are beginning to offer users randomly assigned Net addresses, or addresses that change constantly so as to make them harder to track. But those numbers are only randomly assigned each time a user turns off his or her computer, analysts say.
As a result, although Excite@Home offers randomly generated addresses, subscribers still may be susceptible to hackers, analysts say. People with dial-up Internet access face less of a security risk because they generally stay logged online for less than a few hours at a time.