Taking the plunge – 3 (Online family trees security)

The third item on my list of reasons why you might be reluctant to put your family history on the web is security. Closely linked to privacy but in some ways even more worrying. Certainly in my experience this area is far more annoying, and chiefly involves two particularly nasty groups of “people” (in quotes as I’m not really sure they deserve to be classified as part of the human race….) called hackers and spammers.
First some clarification:

  • A hacker is a person who breaks into computers and computer networks, either for profit or motivated by the challenge. [ref: wikipedia]
  • Spam is the use of electronic messaging systems (including most broadcast media, digital delivery systems) to send unsolicited bulk messages indiscriminately. [ref: wikipedia] In this environment though we are more concerned with a sub-culture of spamming called “spamdexing”
  • Spamdexing refers to a practice on the World Wide Web of modifying HTML pages to increase the chances of them being placed high on search engine relevancy lists. [ref: wikipedia]

All of these intruders have a variety of goals in what they do; but the results for us are all similar and range from petty annoyances to severely trashing years of hard work and valuable research.

If these issues worry you, then you are already on the right path to preventing them. The worst thing you could possibly do would be to ignore them, having a “couldn’t happen to me” attitude. Its also worth remembering that you are unlikely to ever be 100% protected. Its like crossing the road, you take every possible precaution, but that still doesn’t GUARANTEE you get safely to the other side! However, as I said for privacy, you CAN take steps that allow you to enjoy the WWW, and still sleep soundly at night.

You need to protect yourself in two places. First your home computer, with its internet connection, email system and so on. This could be a gateway through which an intruder obtains access codes, passwords etc that allow them to access your web server, where all that important family history data is stored.  Second is your web server. This could be the same machine as your home PC, but that would mean you’re even more of a ‘techie than me, so not very likely! We’re mot likely talking about someone else’s web server, that could be almost anywhere in the world, that you rent space on.

Protecting your home computer means doing a number of things:

  1. Use a firewall, aT least a software based one, but even better a hardware one. In either case they sit between your computer and the modem that links you to the internet. They acts as a gateway doing its best to shut out unwanted intrusions.
  2. Use anti-spam / anti-spy software. This adds another layer of protection to the firewall.
  3. Use safe-internet practices. That means things like don’t download anything from anywhere you don’t know for certain is safe; don’t open emails from people you don’t know; never give passwords or account details for anything to anyone, ever; use strong, long passwords and change them frequently!
  4. Keep all software regularly updated. This is almost always free, and ensures any loopholes are blocked before they can be exploited. Its a fact of life that NO software is 100% bug free and safe. The developers are fighting a constant battle with the spammers and hackers, so help them to help you by staying in touch and using the updates they provide.

Protecting you actual family data history on the web server is easier, but generally has cost implications. That’s because of an old but relevant cliché, “you get what you pay for“. In general the more you pay the more secure your data will be, the better the software will run, and the fewer problems you will experience. In determining what you need from a web server host you should consider:

  1. Their reputation, especially in respect of support, service, and their general customer attitude
  2. The specifications of their servers. Do they offer the right package of products to suit your needs, and not just the bare minimum. When software you want to run on the web lists “minimum requirements” they means just that MINIMUM. That means just enough to get it running, which is quite different to “enough to get it running beautifully”.
  3. How often will your data be backed-up, and how easily is to access those back-ups in case of a disaster?
  4. What security processes do they have in place to protect your data, and do they charge more for the “better” security?

Hopefully, armed with these tips you will be able to find the right and safest home for your family history data. Of course, if you really want to have a trouble free life and not worry about all these things then you’re already in the right place. Solving these problems for you is exactly why I created kiwitrees!!!