Firewalls: Protection or Deception?

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A firewall can protect you from any cyber-attack – or can it? The mythbuster takes on the firewall.


The myth

Firewalls monitor network-traffic and block data packets that do not traverse secure channels. This keeps you safe from cyber attacks.

The truth

Firewalls monitor the system by watching ports: ports are like doors that steer incoming and outgoing network traffic onto organized tracks. So several programs can wait at the more than 65,000 doors and process the data that reaches the ports – this prevents data jams. A firewall basically shuts down almost all the ports, in order to prevent unwanted packets from getting into the PC. The data packets can only use the ports that have been explicitly approved. So something like the most well known port (80), which carries all HTTP packets, must be open for the browser, otherwise you won’t be able to surf at all – and this is exactly where the firewall’s biggest problem lies. Attackers use this perpetually-open port to get into the system. One of the most successful tricks is the so-called ‘cross-site scripting’. This method involves using ‘innocent’ websites that allow HTML commandinputs from the user to launch attacks. Instead of simple commands like greased scripts, attackers could, for example, install Javascript codes in small advertisement. Such a code then passes the user data stored in the cookies on to the hacker, who can then surf the internet under somebody else’s identity and access that person’s account data. It’s very hard to defend yourself against an attack of this nature. You could simply deactivate Javascripts, but many websites won’t work properly if you do. The website operator has to adopt the appropriate protective measures, and the users have no alternative but to put their trust in them.

There are also other types of attacks that can penetrate software firewalls. A large number of modern cyber attacks use new methods, instead of just using ports that have accidentally been left open. Malicious software can find its way into a computer via e-mail attachments, internet downloads or storage media. Or it can directly attack the firewall itself, by using legal protocols to tunnel into it or simply replacing the firewall’s executive file. However, a careful user can give himself a certain measure of protection against these attacks by relying on verified downloads and anti-virus software. One, thing, however, is very clear: the myth is overwhelmingly false.

A firewall offers security

Conventional cyber attacks use open ports to infiltrate malicious software into a PC. Firewalls can work in such a scenario, if they are configured correctly.

Description: A firewall offers security

A firewall offers no security

Many attacks use ports that need to be open all the time (like port 80 for HTTP, i.e., internet access) to bypass a firewall’s protective function

Description: A firewall offers no security

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