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Computer Security: a handbook for the ordinary user

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Seven Steps to Software Security

Book review It may seem a little self-referential to review a book by a colleague but Thomas C. Greene's Computer Security for the Home and Small Office is a well-written manual on computer security and online-privacy that's well worthy of your attention. Written with home users in mind, the book aims to demystify computer security and help users to enjoy and a safer and more enjoyable computing experience. The book, though not without its flaws, largely succeeds in this difficult task.

Reg readers will know of Greene's enthusiasm for Linux desktops but in the book he recognises that the majority of people remain attached to Windows. Recognising this, he argues that it's easy to enhance Windows security simply by replacing common applications, utilities, and clients with open-source alternatives that "don't contain any hidden code or secret functions". By preferring open to closed source software, many routes to exploitation can be shut off.

As early as the Intro, readers are advised to install and properly configure the Mozilla browser and email client in favour of Internet Explorer and Outlook Express. Greene's argument is particular timely: continuing problems with IE have prompted security clearing house US-CERT to advise users to use other browsers.

The great Windows vs Linux debate

While the book focuses on Windows, Linux users will find plenty of advice within its pages. The book contains a chapter weighing the advantages and disadvantages of migrating from Windows to Linux - a move that Greene says greatly simplifies computer security for less experienced users. As Reg readers might expect, Greene seasons his computer security tips with analysis, illustrative security incident anecdotes and humour. This will not be to everyone's taste. But the result is a book with much more personality than that any technical manual I've come across before. At the same time it is a thorough guide to basic computer security practices and is refreshingly free of technical jargon and hype.

Signposting security

If the book has a fault it is that it sometimes jumps from step-by step-guides to discourses on much broader computer security issues. It is almost as if two books had been merged into one. This is not a criticism of the content but of the editing and format which leaves readers picking through chapters looking for advice. Readers who take the time to do this will be rewarded with clear and detailed explanations on configuring Mozilla or installing PGP, for example. But despite a comprehensive index and appendices I'm still left with the impression that readers could have been given a bit more help.

The jokes, anecdotes and yes rants - it is our Thomas, after all - do differentiate the book from other manuals and give a reader a clear background for the advice proffered. Many sections summarise arguments and discussions which Greene first aired on these pages.

Online privacy and anonymity, encryption, and data hygiene are important areas of security which Greene reckons have received far too little attention. He provides practical advice on PGP encryption and pointers to other resources but we’re left with the impression he’s got a lot more to say on the subject, which may feature in further works by the author.

Fighting FUD

A key theme is de-bunking the hacker myth. Greene challenges the conventional wisdom that hackers are the primary cause of system exploitation by pointing out that few would succeed but for the innocent mistakes of users, and the prevalence of malware and software flaws. In focusing on this aspect, Greene presents security as a manageable problem for end users, instead of leaving them cowering in fear. He supplis his readers with material that will leave them a better judge of the threats they need to worry about, and the ones you can safely dismiss.

Greene writes: "There is a whole security and antivirus racket devoted to frightening us with dire threats, encouraging us to overspend on mediocre security products and services. But in truth, it's neither difficult nor expensive to harden a computer system or small network with sensible configurations and inexpensive, and often free, tools. Nor is it at all difficult to frustrate malicious hackers, virus writers and privacy invaders.

"Computer security and online privacy are not black arts - you can learn them, and you will," he adds.

Greene backs up this analysis with advice on defending systems from attack, protecting privacy and protecting children from inappropriate Web content. For instance, he explains how to set up a multi-user system on Windows XP. By setting up Windows correctly, it's possible to reduce the harmful effects of malware and enhance user privacy on shared systems.

Screen grabs and extensive appendices illustrate these tutorials which are clearly presented, if a little poorly signposted. In this small respect Computer Security for the Home and Small Office scores badly against Idiot's guide to computer-style books. In other departments, Greene's book is streets ahead and I'd have no hesitation in recommending it as an engaging primer to computer security for everyday computer users.

Strongly recommended. The list price is $39.99 but you should be able to get a good discount from Amazons US, Canada and UK. ®

Computer Security for the Home and Small Office by Thomas C. Greene (405 pages) Published by Apress, April 2004 Distributed by Springer Verlag ISBN: 1590593162

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