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Whoever coined the phrase, “absence makes the heart grow fonder” wasnt talking about mobile computing.

Despite the increased flexibility and productivity mobile computing offers to traveling insurance executives and work-from-the-road agents, laptops and remote network access can cause information security risks for mobile workers if proper measures arent taken.

Since the number of mobile devices with network access has increased precipitously, companies must confront the security threats to which these devices can be exposed.

Most people understand the need for physically protecting a laptop or other mobile device, and they take precautions to ensure safety with locks, cables or common sense. However, digital dangers are lurking, which can create just as much trouble.

Picture this: One of the people in your office is working remotely on his laptop and downloads and opens a virus-infected e-mail attachment. The employee views the message, but now a computer worm has wiggled its way onto his machine without him knowing.

After that, the person either connects to the enterprise network with the laptop or brings the laptop into the office the next day, behind the enterprise firewall. The company has been exposed to a security risk as the result of a laptop user not being protected.

Todays computer viruses and worms can do everything from display an annoying animation to destroy or steal important files. There are several ways these threats can end up on a computer, and it is critical to protect against them.

Most people are aware of the risks, but virus writers can be pretty clever. Many of todays virus threats come disguised as an “official” looking e-mail or other file attachment that unleashes a malicious program when opened.

Many computer users take precautions, such as not opening an attachment that wasnt expected or simply deleting e-mails from unknown parties. However, many laptop and desktop computer users arent aware that instant messaging applications like Yahoo Messenger, AOL Messenger and similar programs can also be a threat. Although these tools are great for instant real-time communication from a laptop, virus-infected files can be transmitted through these programs, bypassing virus-scanning software on an e-mail server.

Viruses, worms or Trojan horses can also be downloaded inadvertently through popular file-sharing programs for downloading music files and other data. Some viruses can disguise themselves by making a file extension appear to be that of a common music file. When the file is downloaded and opened, it is revealed to be a computer worm, which can wreak havoc.

To protect against virus infection through these and other methods, antivirus software should be installed on the laptop of every mobile worker. The software should be updated frequently with virus definitions or patches from the software vendor so the program can identify the latest bugs.

The best antivirus programs update themselves automatically when a laptop is connected to the Internet. Laptops that connect to a corporate network in company headquarters should use antivirus software to protect information on the computer and also to keep the remote computers from infecting the company network when they return to the office.

Many insurance professionals have laptop computers at home for business and personal use after hours. While they may be protected behind corporate security software in the office, they may not have the same protection when they connect to the Internet from home.

The security risk is especially great to users with an “always-on” broadband DSL or cable connection, because hackers (people trying to gain unauthorized access to computers and information) can use them to find and access other computers logged onto the Internet. Sensitive or important information on laptops may be exposed to hackers through these broadband connections at home.

A hacker who enters a company laptop through a DSL or cable connection can use it as a conduit to gain access to the laptop owners corporate network. He may also gain control of a laptop or desktop and use the computer itself as a tool to attack other Web sites or networks with denial of service (DoS) attacks, causing them to shut down.

It is important to make sure laptops are equipped with a personal firewall in order to block any attempt to access the computer or its contents without the owners knowledge. Coupled with intrusion detection technology, a personal firewall will not only protect against hacking attempts, but will also alert the user when somebody is trying to gain access and will provide details about the attempt.

As our dependence on the Internet continues and the threats to the computer networks continue to evolve, its important to implement safeguard software, especially at mobile end-user level. Antivirus software, personal firewalls and intrusion detection technologies can effectively protect against threats at the desktop and laptop.

End-user education is also one of the most critical aspects of protecting laptops and corporate networks. IT personnel should actively inform insurance executives and agents who work remotely of the threats that exist and the tools to protect against them.

is responsible for defining global requirements and delivering enterprisewide integrated client security solutions at Symantec Corporation, based in Cupertino, Calif. He can be reached at gulaner@symantec.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, July 14, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved. Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.