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By Wayne McDilda

Computer security threats are omnipresent – you hear of them through TV, radio, newspaper and magazine reports, even word of mouth. How do small business owners and their employees know who to trust, what to do, what NOT to do, what others have done, and what is applicable to their environment (vendor, applications, procedures, networks, training)? One source to turn to for answers in this wave of confusion is a computer user group.

Today’s computer user groups have much to offer. For example, Encompass, an HP User Group I belong to, provides assistance to its business user membership in many forms, including software libraries, mailing lists, technical conferences, training, technical resources and human networking.

Small businesses and startups with limited budgets (time, money, and people) have a need for information, tools, procedures, training, and human networking. Computer user groups can fill this void. Successful user groups offer technical knowledge exchange and opportunities for professional growth through peer-to-peer networking opportunities. User groups comprise membership from myriad fields, including universities, national laboratories, government agencies, private corporations, international businesses and employees of several computer manufacturers.

Many security breaches arise today due to bad configurations, software vulnerabilities, or patching problems. Small business’s can learn how to deal with these challenges through user groups like Encompass, which provide a wealth of information that is applicable to each security concern.

Here are some of the resources user groups provide their members to help them deal with security breaches and other pertinent issues:

• lists and forums
• technical forums
• training opportunities
• special interest groups
• online resources

Lists and forums: User group members can exchange information by maximizing lists and forums to their full potential. In addition to providing access to other “customers,” a user group can provide access to the vendor’s product managers, software developers or even the technical architects. Exchanging problems and experiences one-on-one with the people who write the code can be invaluable -- one can learn where problems lie and how to go about resolving them.

For example, after subscribing to the UNIX Security mailing list, Encompass members receive monthly emails covering various security topics that they are facing. One recent topic covered was “Secure shell: A client server application to implement secure network commands.” This e-mail detailed for members what Secure Shell was, how to implement the program and provided some examples of ways to use it, some hints, tips and pitfalls.

Technical forums: Training, peer support, tools and resources are all offered at effective technical forums.

For example, at a recent user group sponsored HP Technology Forum in Orlando, “good guy” hackers showed examples of how search engines and databases could be exploited to compromise networks and systems, while several sessions even gave out computer security toolkits on DVD to the attendees. These toolkits contained software, training and presentations on how, what, where and why to stop the latest security threats.

Forum attendees were given a chance to experience new security technologies like radio frequency identification (RFID). Using a RFID chip in their badges, attendees could visit various locations at the conference where they could ask questions about this technology’s applications, limitations and security.

Best practices/training: Both professional and peer training is available at some conferences, and professional training may take a traditional structured classroom focus. Peer training is often delivered as hands-on experiential education. Even spontaneous experience is delivered at various technology campgrounds, as a lively discussion around virtual campfires. Specialized topics are covered at “birds of a feather” meetings, where people with similar issues gather informally to exchange ideas. Off-site and distance learning is delivered via video Webcasts or at regional/local user group meetings.

At one of the technology campgrounds, attendees discussed the security needs of the Unix operating system. Each attendee talked about what was needed and why. Discussion ensued over the timetable and requirements to be presented to the computer vendor in light of recent computer security breaches.

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Wayne McDilda is a senior analyst at Mirage Networks and a member of the Encompass HP User Group.
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