We mentioned several weeks ago in our technology policy and security e-letter that hackers seem to get restive around August, releasing more worms, viruses and other harmful software detritus onto the Internet.
This year the month's biggest release could be the antidote: Microsoft Corp.'s Service Pack 2. This huge bundle of software is designed to protect computers running the Windows XP operating system from a variety of online threats.
One of the changes that XP users will notice when they install "SP2:" Their computer firewall software will be turned on by default. A firewall, which regulates what data enters and leaves the computer, is an essential part of a strong defense against viruses and worms.
One of the biggest drawbacks to the old Windows firewall was its incompatibility with Windows File Sharing, a handy feature that allows groups of computers on a network to share music, documents and other files. Sharing files traditionally meant disabling the firewall or downloading, installing and configuring a firewall made by another company.
That's not the case with SP2. In addition to blocking inbound Internet traffic, the new firewall lets users choose which programs should receive Web traffic, though doing so requires that the user has a grasp of some basic networking features, such as which "port" the programs use to send and receive data.
But that does not mean security is assured. The firewall still will allow access to files from computers with Internet addresses on the same "subnet," a techie term for a block of addresses located on parts of a cable Internet network. Speaking practically, that means the several hundred other customers you share space with on the cable company's subnet can look at your files. It's like dropping in at your local coffeehouse and hooking up to the wireless network with file-sharing and nothing but the Windows Firewall enabled; the guy with the latte at the next table would be able to read and possibly alter your files.
One other important note: Service Pack 2 stops new spyware, viruses and worms from entering a computer, but does not do much to keep those bugs from traveling to other machines if they're already in yours. For that level of protection, users may still need to rely on other companies' programs.
--Brian Krebs, washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
For More Information on Service Pack 2...
Washington Post columnist Rob Pegorarowrote about some of the new features included with SP2, also noting that the software bundle is being rolled out slowly (initially to business users, later this month to the general public) so that people running the estimated 200 million copies of XP out there don't try to download it all at once.
You also can share your SP2 experiences on a Web page set up by the SANS Institute, based in Bethesda, Md.
The FCC: Your One-Stop Regulation Shop
The Federal Communications Commission went through one last, frenetic burst of activity last week before presumably joining the rest of the Washington, D.C.-area population at the beach. Its most consumer-friendly action was to require direct marketers to get permission before sending e-mail messages to wireless-device users. In short, it's designed to prevent spam from gaining new toeholds in some areas where it's already trying. It means no spam on mobile phones (already happening), personal digital assistants (already happening) and elsewhere. Not covered in the order? Services that forward existing computer e-mail messages to wireless devices and phone-to-phone text messaging.
The FCC also acted on several other fronts, including a tentative ruling that allows judges to grant wiretaps for Internet-based telephone conversations, and a decision to try, once and for all, to curb the tedious trio of waste, fraud and abuse from E-rate, the federal program that subsidizes Internet access at public schools and libraries.
How to Succeed in Business While Still Being a Democrat
Democratic presidential nominee and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is snagging a higher amount of support from high-tech industry executives than his predecessors, according to a recent story by Washington Post reporter Jonathan Weisman. What's all the more interesting is that economic advisers don't see this as a big surprise. The reason is that while top business executives remain largely Republican, certain sectors, including high-tech, are steering their support into more Democratic waters. The reason, according to Ruy Teixeira, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, is that tech leaders are "knowledge industry folks," who have a more complex agenda for how the government should run. Managerial types, Teixeira said, tend to vote Republican because "they have a relatively simple agenda for government: Get off my back."
--Robert MacMillan, washingtonpost.com Technology Policy Editor