'Biggest Cyber Attack in History' could be bad news for your home computer

Companies fighting back jeopardize your data

CINCINNATI - If you think what's being called the "biggest cyber attack in history" doesn't affect you, think again.

The attack was launched against Spamhaus , an organization that stops spam emails from getting to people's inboxes, apparently by one or more of groups whose spam was being targeted, according to published reports.

And while the attack slowed Internet service throughout Europe, it has much more serious implications close to home, said Richard Harknett, head of the Political Science Department at the University of Cincinnati's McMicken College of Arts & Sciences and an expert on cyber security.

That's because such attacks are prompting businesses to become much more aggressive in fighting hackers and cyber attacks instead of simply defending against them, he said.

Once companies take the offensive against hackers, he said, your computer's hard drive could get caught in the crossfire.

Harknett explained how: Most hackers increase their computing power by using "infected" computers owned by average people who don't even know their computers have been hacked.

People whose computers have been hacked might notice that they're operating slowly for a while or that maybe their hard drives are running a lot for reasons they can't explain, he said.

"It's probably because their computers have been compromised and are part of a botnet," he said.

A botnet is a collection of computers that have been compromised through a hack. Hackers gain access by "phishing," or attempting to acquire usernames and passwords through phony emails. Or they launch keystroke programs to steal usernames and passwords when they're typed into a computer.

Hackers then turn individuals' computers into "little soldiers in this botnet army," Harknett said. "A botnet is like an army. And the larger the army, the more effective it can be."

When companies take the offensive against hackers, they can end up destroying the hard drives of all the computers in the army, Harknett said.

"You're getting caught up basically in a war that you don't even know you're involved in," he said.

There are ways for you to protect yourself and your computers, he said.

First, make sure you have anti-virus software running on your computer from a legitimate service. And make sure it's updated every couple of days.

Also, be careful in how you use email. Those messages with lots of attachments that are forwarded over and over, for example, can lead to your computer being infected, he said. Harknett recommends just deleting those.

Never open an attachment unless you really know who is sending it, he said.

And use multiple, strong passwords, he said.

"You should have multiple passwords for your activities so if one got compromised, your whole system isn't compromised," he said. "The average person has 10 to 20 passwords, and they end up using the same password and not making it very sophisticated. It's like you get the keys to the house."

Finally, people should back up their files in some way.

"Forget about hacking and that kind of stuff," he said. "Hard drives just die. They eventually die."

Harknett argues the growing problem with cyber attacks is a good reason for governments to get involved in cyber security.

Proposals to do that have failed, largely because of a fear of "Big Brother," the fictional dictator in George Orwell's novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four," he said.

"Orwell got it completely wrong," he said. "I argue it's not ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.' It's another British novel, ‘Lord of the Flies.' In our concern to avoid Big Brother, we've actually left ourselves like the kids on the island where there's no central authority."

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