A Brief Introduction to Computer Network Security

Protect your equipment, devices, and data from theft

Computer network security has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, as cybercriminal exploits hit the news on a weekly basis. Network security technology is constantly evolving, but its basic tenets remain constant. Here's a primer on the most critical aspects of network security you should be aware of for your home or business network to best protect your privacy and data.

You'll need to implement network security best practices whether you're using Windows or Mac systems, and no matter how big or small your network is. Remember that the best network security requires a combination of approaches.

Computer in dark office, security alert on screen
Getty Images / Dimitri Otis

Physical Network Security

One often-overlooked network security element involves protecting hardware devices from theft and physical intrusion. Corporations lock network servers, network switches, and other core network components in well-guarded facilities. These measures aren't practical for homeowners, but you can keep your password-protected broadband routers in a private location, away from neighbors and houseguests.

If you're concerned about data theft through physical means, such as someone stealing a computer or router, consider not storing your data locally. Online backup services and cloud storage sites store sensitive files offsite at secure backup locations. Even if the local hardware is stolen or compromised, the files are still secure.

Mobile Physical Security

The widespread use of mobile devices has made physical security even more important. Smartphones fall out of pockets and are easy to leave behind, leaving them vulnerable to theft. Laptops and tablets are also frequently stolen. To keep your mobile devices safe, consider these precautions:

  • Be alert to your physical surroundings whenever you use mobile devices, and put them away safely when you're finished.
  • Activate remote tracking software if possible, so you can track and even remotely erase a stolen device.
  • Use a password with all your mobile devices so they're not easy for prying eyes to view.
  • Stay in visual contact with your phone if you loan it to someone. A malicious person can steal personal data, install monitoring software, or otherwise hack a phone in just a few minutes when it's left unattended.

Password Protection

If applied properly, passwords are an extremely effective way to improve network security. Take password management seriously, and don't use weak, easy-to-guess passwords such as 123456. A few other best practices in password management go a long way toward network and device security. Consider these precautions:

  • Set strong passwords or passcodes on all devices that join the network.
  • Change the default administrator password of network routers.
  • Don't share passwords with others unless absolutely necessary.
  • Set up guest network access for friends and visitors, if possible.
  • Change passwords frequently, especially if you've shared them or they've been discovered.

To make it easier to find and use passwords, store them in a password manager.

Spyware

Even without physical access to a device or knowing any network passwords, illicit programs such as spyware can infect computers and networks. This happens when you visit malicious websites accidentally or through a link in a phishing email.

Spyware takes many forms. Some types monitor computer usage and web-browsing habits to report the data to corporations, who then use it to create targeted advertising. Other kinds of spyware attempt to steal personal data.

One of the most dangerous forms of spyware, keylogger software, logs and sends the history of all keyboard actions, capturing passwords and credit card numbers along the way.

All spyware attempts to function without the knowledge of anyone who uses the infected computer, thereby posing a substantial security risk to the computer and the network to which it's connected. Because spyware is difficult to detect and remove, security experts recommend installing and running reputable anti-spyware software on computer networks.

Online Privacy

Personal stalkers and identity thieves monitor people’s online habits and movements well beyond the scope of basic spyware.

Wi-Fi hotspot usage on commuter trains and automobiles reveal your location, for example. Even in the virtual world, much about a person’s identity can be tracked online through the IP addresses of their networks and their social network activities. Privacy protection tools include anonymous web proxy servers and VPN services.

Though maintaining complete privacy online is not fully achievable, those methods protect privacy to a certain degree. Still, be careful what you share online and with whom.