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by Tom Berry
(trust him - he's older now)

Not the one in old cars

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The ‘history of firewalls’ on Google or Bing brings up nothing but internet references. I was looking for a partition like the one that separates the engine compartment from the passenger compartment in a 1932 Ford five-window coupe, but I guess that words like ‘firewall’ or ‘boilerplate’ have had to morph or go away. ‘Firewall’ now is all about digital communication: and you better have one in place, or you’ll be sorry.

Way, way back, clear back beyond the turn of the century to 2000, a gateway-firewall device was something that ordinary people didn't own. Only large corporate networks could budget paying tens of thousands of dollars to purchase and maintain a good firewall. It was a BIG deal - almost always some heavy, solid piece of hardware with enough heft to at least make you feel like you'd received your money's worth. But by today's standards those expensive devices were crude.

There were few firewalls then and even less evil hacking. In fact, hacking was much less heard of and most ‘hackers’ were actually individuals defined as those who just loved to tinker. Now the tinkerers are mostly called ‘gearheads’.

In the mid 1990's I created The World Wide Belch Contest because the new Netscape web browser could carry sound (a BIG deal then). The internet was much simpler and advertising was frowned on. (I know because I tried to advertise the Belch Contest). There was NO commerce allowed with retribution meted out to violators.

But here’s 2012, the year that will exceed all earlier with record-setting hacking and spam. Experts claim that spam will make up as much as 80+ percent of all communications traffic. Thus, the ubiquitous firewall is an absolute must for allowing in only what you want and for protection against identity theft.

Firewalls are cheap by comparison to those problems and now come pre-installed with operating systems--maintained software that automatically updates to the latest protection and include anti-virus measures.

Very basically, firewalls are like a moat and a castle wall, which close off any entrance until you (or someone helping you configure your computer/castle) decide which entrances (ports) will be open, and what should pass through those ports.

For a simplified example, a normal firewall will allow you to pass traffic on port 80 because that's what your computer’s web browser uses to go to web sites. Other common ports allow file transfers (ftp) and e-mail.

The firewall should allow you to happily operate your computer without someone else getting in to take over the internal operations of your very own device, to use it to steal from you and others and/or to advertise for sales of products that may or may not exist. You pay each month for internet access: a thief shouldn’t be using what you pay for to their own enrichment.

But the minute you open any port (which you must, in order to connect with the internet) you also open the possibility of something bad/wrong/evil slipping in. The hackers first and most important tool is the discovery that your device is connected to the Internet. From there, hackers find out which ports are open on your device and whether those open ports are vulnerable to attack. (This sounds like a game of survival and I guess that it is).

You can find out if you are overly exposed by using the Shields Up online tool to discover which open ports that your device is advertising to the world.

  • Go to, read the information there if you like, then click"Proceed". If you get a "non-secure form" warning, click "send".

  • On the next page, click the "Common Ports" button inside the blue ShieldsUP!! Services box. You'll also find links on this page that let youread a LOT more about security but simply, without falling completely into geek-dom-goo. You'll get a little taste of firewall-ing and learn that status "Stealth" is good (it keeps you hidden from trouble makers).

  • The tool will then show you whether are not your ports are visible or in "stealth" mode. Not Stealth? You are exposed? There is great information at the site to help you diagnose and repair your exposure (if you choose to get involved).

A new discovered hack (an exploit advertised to the world as newly available) means that your system’s creator-maintainer will likely send out a security updates. Keep those updates up-to-date and you will be winning the game of survival.

And for users who like to play with their devices, go ahead, it’s fun. But be aware that fun can mean less secure operations through various added port openings and uses. It comes down to that. And "fun" doesn't usually include hyper nerd indulgences about the inner knowledge acquired through spending tons of time gear-heading your machine . . . most people prefer just to use them and hope for the best.

Somewhere - between pleasure and safe - there has to be middle ground and that rests on your firewall.


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