The security threat in the home is real, analysts say, as more consumers gain high-speed Internet access through cable modems and digital subscriber lines (DSL)--and decide to network their home PCs together to share files or printers.
Without protection, so-called broadband connections like cable and DSL are more susceptible to breaches than dial-up Internet access, as broadband connections are "always on," analysts say.
"There's nothing between you and the hostile world out there," said analyst Rob Enderle of the Giga Information Group. "The concept of coming home and having some kid deleting your hard drive, and just messing up your life, is pretty good."
Since broadband connections are "always-on," which means users don't have to log in each time they access the Net, cable and DSL lines are attractive targets for malicious hackers. Security will become more of an issue as high-speed Net access and networking technologies become more mainstream, analysts say.
A recent Yankee Group study found that 62 percent of U.S. households are interested in high-speed Internet access, and 38 percent of those are interested in networking their PCs and their other devices together.
New software solutions
Analysts believe firewall software, or new separate computer hardware with built-in firewall capabilities, may prove to be successful in warding off would-be meddling computer hackers from attacking home networks.
A firewall is generally software used to protect sensitive data stored in a PC from being accessed by unauthorized people.
Two smaller software makers--Signal 9 Solutions and Sybergen Networks--currently make consumer firewall products. But now McAfee.com and Symantec, two of the nation's largest antivirus software makers, are also pursuing firewall software for home users--highlighting the growing interest in the nascent market.
Symantec is expected to release a suite of easy-to-use security products for home users in October, sources said. The product, expected to be called Norton Security 2000, will include antivirus software and a personal firewall system.
The Symantec product will examine the flow of data in and out of a home network. For example, a firewall can warn a user that someone is trying to access sensitive information--such as credit card numbers, sources said.
In another example, the firewall technology could prevent a person from breaking into a home network to place files, viruses, or other information on a user's hard drive, said Chris Williams, Network Associates' senior manager for security research.
Sources said Symantec licensed the firewall technology from software maker WRQ and developed the rest of the software internally.
Symantec representatives declined comment.
McAfee executives are also working on firewall technology, but could not discuss plans, citing a quiet period during the company's separation from its parent firm Network Associates.
"McAfee.com is extremely aware of the threats proposed by persistent connections and the industry at large will provide firewalls and other solutions to protect consumers in this enviroment," said Jim Balderston, McAfee.com's business analyst.
"Basically the home is being confronted by similar problems that businesses faced 10 to 15 years ago," said Jeff Waldhuter, director of technology and engineering for Bell Atlantic.
The potential problems with broadband connections are the same problems experienced in most Internet Protocol-based connections, including dial-up Net accounts, analysts said. But the greater problem in this case is that cable and DSL connections are constantly connected to the Internet.
"With 'always on' you're just exposed to the risks for a greater period of time," said Brent Chapman, director of technical marketing for Covad Communications, an upstart DSL wholesaler.
The problem stems 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--like email--get to its proper destination. Yet that same address can also be used by malicious hackers to pinpoint the location of a user and possibly gain unauthorized access to that user's network.
Many broadband service providers are already looking to offer users randomly assigned Net addresses, or addresses that change constantly as to make them harder to track. But those numbers are only randomly assigned each time a user turns their computer off.
"A lot of people are going to use their computers on all the time, so they may have the same IP address for days," said George Peabody, managing director for telecommunications research at Aberdeen Group. "What we're seeing is a need for firewall software on an individual user's computer because of the always-on nature of broadband connections."
How to protect yourself
Some analysts believe service providers could be doing more to alert their customers to potential risks.
"I don't think they're doing much [to protect their users]," Peabody said. "I think they're just becoming aware of what the risks are."
Yet some executives claim that many home PC users aren't likely targets for an intentional PC attack.
"I think it's a little overblown. What value do I have on my computer to a hacker? They're more interested in corporate networks with intellectual property," Bell Atlantic's Waldhuter said.
Aberdeen Group analyst Eric Hemmindiger disagreed.
"If you're a high-schooler, figuring out what his neighbor has on his computer might be more interesting than a corporation he knows nothing about," he said. "Or if he had a falling out with a friend, he could say, 'Gee, let me see what we can do there.'"
High-speed Internet users, short of buying personal firewall software, are not without security options.
Bell Atlantic's Waldhuter said there are several simple methods to keep a home network safe from attack.
"The first logical thing is you might want to password protect you computer in your home. It's a simple thing you can do," he said. "If you really have something that's sensitive, the thing to do is not to leave it on your hard drive. Keep it on a floppy."