If you have been using the Internet for any length of time, and especially if you work at a larger company and browse the Web while you are at work, you have probably heard the term firewall used.
For example, you often hear people in companies say things like, "I can't use that site because they won't let it through the firewall."
If you have a fast Internet connection into your home (either a DSL connection or a cable modem), you may have found yourself hearing about firewalls for your home network as well.
It turns out that a small home network has many of the same security issues that a large corporate network does. You can use a firewall to protect your home network and family from offensive Web sites and potential hackers.
A firewall is a barrier to keep destructive forces away from your property. In fact, that's why its called a firewall. Its job is similar to a physical firewall that keeps a fire from spreading from one area to the next.
A firewall is simply a program or hardware device that filters the information coming through the Internet connection into your private network or computer system. If an incoming packet of information is flagged by the filters, it is not allowed through.
Firewalls use one or more of three methods to control traffic flowing in and out of the network:
Packet filtering - Packets (small chunks of data) are analyzed against a set of filters. Packets that make it through the filters are sent to the requesting system and all others are discarded.
Proxy service - Information from the Internet is retrieved by the firewall and then sent to the requesting system and vice versa.
Stateful inspection - A newer method that doesn't examine the contents of each packet but instead compares certain key parts of the packet to a database of trusted information. Information traveling from inside the firewall to the outside is monitored for specific defining characteristics, then incoming information is compared to these characteristics. If the comparison yields a reasonable match, the information is allowed through. Otherwise it is discarded.
Why Firewall Security?
There are many creative ways that unscrupulous people use to access or abuse unprotected computers:
Remote login - When someone is able to connect to your computer and control it in some form. This can range from being able to view or access your files to actually running programs on your computer.
Application backdoors - Some programs have special features that allow for remote access. Others contain bugs that provide a backdoor, or hidden access, that provides some level of control of the program.
SMTP session hijacking - SMTP is the most common method of sending e-mail over the Internet. By gaining access to a list of e-mail addresses, a person can send unsolicited junk e-mail (spam) to thousands of users. This is done quite often by redirecting the e-mail through the SMTP server of an unsuspecting host, making the actual sender of the spam difficult to trace.
Operating system bugs - Like applications, some operating systems have backdoors. Others provide remote access with insufficient security controls or have bugs that an experienced hacker can take advantage of.
Denial of service - You have probably heard this phrase used in news reports on the attacks on major Web sites. This type of attack is nearly impossible to counter. What happens is that the hacker sends a request to the server to connect to it. When the server responds with an acknowledgement and tries to establish a session, it cannot find the system that made the request.
E-mail bombs - An e-mail bomb is usually a personal attack. Someone sends you the same e-mail hundreds or thousands of times until your e-mail system cannot accept any more messages.
Macros - To simplify complicated procedures, many applications allow you to create a script of commands that the application can run. This script is known as a macro. Hackers have taken advantage of this to create their own macros that, depending on the application, can destroy your data or crash your computer.
Viruses - Probably the most well-known threat is computer viruses. A virus is a small program that can copy itself to other computers. This way it can spread quickly from one system to the next. Viruses range from harmless messages to erasing all of your data.
Spam - Typically harmless but always annoying, spam is the electronic equivalent of junk mail. Spam can be dangerous though. Quite often it contains links to Web sites. Be careful of clicking on these because you may accidentally accept a cookie that provides a backdoor to your computer.
Redirect bombs - Hackers can use ICMP to change (redirect) the path information takes by sending it to a different router. This is one of the ways that a denial of service attack is set up.
Source routing - In most cases, the path a packet travels over the Internet (or any other network) is determined by the routers along that path. But the source providing the packet can arbitrarily specify the route that the packet should travel. Hackers sometimes take advantage of this to make information appear to come from a trusted source or even from inside the network! Most firewall products disable source routing by default.