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Staying secure when using your desktop from afar

I love remote desktop access. I can sit at any web browser in the world, even the one on my tiny PocketPC, and access my main work computer. Up comes an image of the screen and I can control it just as if I was sitting at my desk.

Quote�I can do it anywhere there's a web browser.�End Quote

I use GotoMyPC and Remote Desktop on my server which runs Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003. Windows XP Professional comes with Remote Desktop built in, so you might be able to get started with it quickly, and for free - here's how.

It's a kind of internet magic. The image of the screen is transmitted to the browser and my control inputs are sent back to my main computer. I can run all my normal programs, all my files are where I left them and I can do it anywhere there's a web browser and an internet connection. That's the good news.

The security risks

These kinds of remote desktop programs present some security worries. Because most of them create a hole through your firewall between the public internet and your desktop, they form a loophole for hackers.

Quote�If a hacker gains access to one of these programs, they will have the same access to the user's computer as the user themselves.�End Quote

Furthermore, if your staff can download and install them without any central management or control, there is a risk that security procedures - like password policies - may not be followed. And if a hacker gains access to one of these programs, they will have the same access to the user's computer and your network as the user themselves.

I'm not saying don't use these programs, but you need to take some precautions:

Don't let users install these programs on their own initiative. Your staff policies should be clear that users can't install programs without permission.

Audit computers regularly - you can get software to do this automatically - and remove pirated and unauthorised software.

When you do allow users to have remote desktop access software, make sure that they understand the risks and know how to use the safety features of the software.

Use strong passwords to control remote desktop access. Change them frequently.

Switch off access when it is not needed. For example, you can enable remote access during a trip abroad but switch off on your return.

Be very wary about using a public computer to connect. Keyloggers and spyware can be used to capture your password.

Ensure that you have a secure network, with an effective firewall to keep out unwanted connections.

Make sure that laptop users do not set their computer to logon automatically and that they don't store their password on their laptop.

Delete remote access privileges once they are not needed. For example, don't let someone who has been fired retain access to your network.

Make sure that users' access to the network is properly controlled. Don't give them access to more files or resources than they need. This can restrict a hacker's access if they are able to get control of a user's computer.

Take these precautions and remote desktop access can be a very useful tool for your business. It means you can use your own PC wherever you are, with access to all your programs and your files. Why not give it a try?

What next?

See how to use Remote Desktop Connection with this step-by-step guide.

Matthew Stibbe writes a new column every fortnight. Sign up to receive them automatically by email.

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