net.wars: Naked in plain sight

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 13 June 2008

I couldn't have been more embarrassed - not even if the tall guy carrying a laptop had just told me I was wearing a wet T-shirt.

Wendy M Grossman

There I was, sitting in the Queen's club international press room [watching tennis - Ed.]. And there was he, the only other possessor of a red laptop in the entire building, showing me a screen full of a hotel reservation from a couple of months back, in full detail. With my name and address on it.

"If I can see it," he said in that maddening you-must-be-an-idiot IT security guy way, "so can everyone else."


I took that laptop to Defcon!

(And nothing bad happened. That I know of. Yet.)

Despite the many Guardian readers who are convinced that I am technically incompetent because I've written pieces in which it seemed more entertaining to pretend to be so for dramatic effect, I am not an idiot. I'm not even technically incompetent, or not completely so. I am just, like most people, busy, and, like most people, the problem most of the time is to get my computers to work, not to stop them from working. And I fall into that shadowland of people who know just enough to want to run their computers their way but not enough to understand all the ramifications of what they're doing.

So, for example: file shares (not file-sharing, a different kettle of worms entirely). What you are meant to do, because you are an ignorant and brain-challenged consumer, is drop any files you need to share on the network into the Shared Documents folder. While it's no more secure than any other folder (and its name is eminently guessable by outside experts), the fact that you have to knowingly put files in it means that very little of your system is exposed.

I, of course, am far too grand (and perverse) to put up with Microsoft telling me how to organise my system, so of course I don't do things that way. Instead, I share specific directories using a structure I devised myself that is the same on all my machines. That's where I fouled up, of course. That laptop runs XP, and in XP, as I suppose I am the last to notice, the default settings have what's known as "simple file-sharing" turned on, so that if you share a directory it's basically open to all comers. XP warns you you're doing something risky; what it doesn't do is tell you in a simple way how to reduce the risk.

Yes, I tried to read the help files. They're impenetrable. Help files, like most of the rest of computing, separate into two types: either they're written for the completely naïve user, or they're written for the professional system administrator. Despite the fact that people like me are a growing class of users, we have to learn this stuff behind the bicycle shed from people randomly selected via Google.

This is what it should have said:

Do one of the following two things: either set permissions so that only those users who have passwords on your system can access this directory or stick a $ sign at the end of the directory name to make it hidden. If you do the latter, you will have to map the directory as a network drive on all the machines that want to use it.
I note that they seem to have improved things in Vista, which I will no doubt start using sometime around 2012). I know Apple probably does this better and Linux is secured out the wazoo, but that's not the point: the point is that it's incredibly easy for moderately knowledgeable users to leave their systems with gaping wide open holes. What I would have liked them to do is offer me the option to view how my system looks to someone connecting from outside with no authentication. I feel sure this could be done.

The problem for Microsoft on this kind of thing is the same problem that afflicts everyone trying to do IT security: everything you do to make the system more secure makes it harder for users to make things work.

In the case of the file shares, as long as your computer is at home sitting behind the kind of firewalled router the big ISPs supply, it's more important to grant access to other household members than it is to worry about outsiders. It's when you take that laptop out of the house…and the really awkward thing is that there isn't any really easy way to test for open shares within your own network if, like many people, you tend to use the same login ID and password on all your machines for simplicity's sake. Do friends let friends drive open shares?

The security guys (really, the WiFi suppliers and tech support) who were only looking around the network for open shares because they were bored, had a good laugh, especially when I told them who I write for (latest addition to the list: Infosecurity magazine!). And they obligingly produced some statistics. Out of the 60 to 100 journalists in the building using the wireless, three had open shares. One, they said, was way more embarrassing than mine, though they declined to elaborate.

I think they were just being nice.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) (but please turn off HTML).