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Hi!  I’m from the Government and I’m Here to Help Your Computer
by Ira Wilsker


            Our computers are apolitical inanimate machines not influenced by our personal politics.  While we as individuals may differ in our beliefs of how much the government should be involved in our personal computing, there is an increasing amount of influence government agencies are having in our routine computer utilization.

            Recently the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, acknowledging the role that our personal computers have in national security, announced a series of email alert services to notify us of potential cyber attacks and other threats to our cyber infrastructure.   As has been explained previously in this column, our computers and net access have become a potential target of terrorism, and can be utilized to launch cyber attacks without our knowledge.  As I type this, the Utah based software company SCO, has had its net access shut down because it was one of the targets of a denial of service attack launched from countless thousands of computers infected with the “A” version of the MyDoom worm.  The free alert system from the Department of Homeland Security, coincidently announced as the MyDoom worm infected millions of machines and slowed down the net, is available both online and by email subscription at www.us-cert.gov.  Warnings will be posted on this site, and emailed to subscribers as soon as they are released.  The free email alerts are listed at www.us-cert.gov/cas/index.html and distributed in four varieties.  Two of the alerts are highly technical versions, and two are non-technical “plain English” versions.  If you decide to subscribe to these free alerts, be sure to follow the subscription instructions explicitly.  In order to prevent the unauthorized “spamming” of subscriptions, a double opt-in process is utilized.  When you send the initial email subscription, a confirming email will be sent by the email list server containing a unique reply code; be sure to follow the instructions exactly in that reply email in order to effect the subscription.

            The “Technical Cyber Security Alerts”, as listed on the US-CERT.GOV website, “…provide timely information about current security issues, vulnerabilities, and exploits.”  The other technical alert is “Cyber Security Bulletins” which “…provide bi-weekly summaries of security issues and new vulnerabilities. They also provide patches, workarounds, and other actions to help mitigate risk.”

            For those interested in less technical, but otherwise current and helpful information, a pair of non-technical alerts is available.  One is “Cyber Security Alerts” self-described as, “…provide(s) timely information about current security issues, vulnerabilities, and exploits … that affects the general public. … (and) outline(s) the steps and actions that non-technical home and corporate computer users can take to protect themselves from attack.”  The other non-technical alert is “Cyber Security Tips” which “…describe(s) common security issues and offer advice for non-technical home and corporate computer users.”

            These alerts will contain a verifiable electronic signature to ensure that they are really valid alerts, and not some misleading spam intended to spoof authentic alerts and mislead victims.  Despite such precautions, there has been some concern that these alerts can still be falsified, leading to the type of damage that they are intended to warn about.  In a recent statement released by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY),  "If I were a betting man, I'd put a few dollars down that the next virus that clogs computer networks is going to be transmitted through an e-mail that looks like one of these DHS e-mail alerts."

            All four of these alerts, as well as the concurrent information posted on the US-CERT.GOV website, are intended to supplement, not replace, similar alerts already distributed by such cyber security companies as Symantec (Norton), Network Associates (McAfee), Panda, Sophos, F-Secure, Trend, and other publishers of antivirus, firewall, and internet security software and services.

            In a less fearsome mode, there is a helpful service available from the quasi-governmental agency, the U.S. Postal Service, to assist businesses, organizations, and individuals who mail items using “Priority” or “Express” mail.  Small quantity users can use a free online service “Click-N-Ship” available at www.usps.com to generate and print mailing labels, complete with tracking number bar codes.   Larger volume users of Express and Priority mail can download a free utility, “USPS Shipping Assistant Software” from the Postal Service to generate mailing labels on their own computers.  Available for free download from www.usps.com/shippingassistant, this interesting utility can be used to track and confirm deliveries, verify zip codes, create mailing labels, calculate domestic and international postage, calculate delivery times, create and store address books, and even generate merchandise return labels.  The labels themselves, complete with barcodes for tracking, are typically printed one or two to an 8.5 x 11 sheet of self-adhesive labels.  Labels are available from the Postal Service website from a private contractor, our local office supply stores, or online.  I recently used both the free online label service, and the “USPS Shipping Assistant 2.2” I recently downloaded to prepare labels to mail merchandise to my kids.   I found both were easy to use and produced excellent quality labels on my printer.  I then used both the free online tracking on the USPS.COM website and the online tracking service integral with the Shipping Assistant software to track the packages, and both worked equally well.

            Now that computers have become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives, it is inevitable that we will see more governmental involvement and assistance with our daily computing.

Last Update:06/26/2007


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