Privacy and Information Security | University of Illinois


This glossary will help you understand some of the more technical terms that relate to computer security. Some of the definitions of these terms were originally found at the UT Austin Information Technology Services glossary.



Adware: A form of spyware that enters your computer from an Internet download. Like spyware, it monitors your computer use, such as what Web sites you visit. Adware gets its name from also launching numerous pop-up ads in your browser.

Antivirus Software: Antivirus software will protect your computer from viruses encountered on the Web. New viruses are born every day, so it's important to update your antivirus software regularly.

Attachment: A document, a picture, a video clip, program or any other kind of file that can be attached and sent with an e-mail or instant message. Malicious programs, viruses or spyware are commonly spread through attachments. Never open or download an IM or e-mail attachment from an unknown source or one that you are not expecting. Be cautious of attachments ending in .exe, .com, .scr, .bat or .pif. By simply deleting a suspect attachment or message, you take another step in protecting your computer.

Authentication: To gain access to many secure systems, you have to identify yourself. Authentication is the process of providing information to identify yourself. Many systems utilize an ID and a password for users to authenticate. Other systems require an ID, a password, and a series of other tests (i.e. personal questions, fingerprint scans, etc) for a more robust authentication.

Authoriztion: A decision whether an authenticated identity has permission to access a resource. Once you identify yourself through authentication, you are granted or denied access through authorization.

Availability: A condition where an information technology resources can be accessed and used. System or network outages preclude availability.

Backdoor: In a computer system, a backdoor refers to an overlooked or hidden entry into a computer system. A backdoor allows a hacker or other unauthorized user to bypass a password requirement and to gain access to a computer.

Backup: Anyone that has had a computer drive fail can tell you the importance of creating a backup of your important information. There are several ways to backup important data on your computer, including uploading information to an online storage space such as NetFiles, making a copy of the information to an external drive, or burning the information to backup CDs.

Botnet: Once a computer is compromised by a hacker and turned into a zombie machine, hackers will often combine the power of several compromised machines into one network called a botnet. While botnets will often run autonomously, the entire botnet can be given commands from a centralized machine, sometimes referred to as a bot herder.

Cleartext: Any information that is transmitted without encryption and can be read by anyone with access to that data. Any sensitive data, including login information, should never be sent as cleartext.

Confidentiality: A condition where a data resource can only be accessed by properly authenticated and authorized identities.

Cookie: A small data file that a Web site installs on your computer's hard drive to collect information about your activities on the site or to allow other capabilities on the site. Web sites use cookies to identify returning visitors and profile their preferences on the site. For example, many online shopping sites use cookies to monitor what items a particular shopper is buying to suggest similar items. Cookies are somewhat controversial as they raise questions of privacy and can be used by hackers as spyware.

Disk Scrubbing: When a disk drive will no longer be used, it is important to fully delete all of the information that is on the drive so that no one else can access the information. Scrubbing a disk means writing over each bit on the drive with new (and usually random) information. Because there are now sophisticated tools to recover information from an erased or overwritten drive, CITES recommends scrubbing a disk several times to make sure the drive is truly cleaned.

Download: The transfer of data from one computer (or server) to another computer. Downloading can refer to documents, software programs, photo, music or movie files. Often downloads can mask unwanted malicious programs.

Encryption: Encryption is the process of changing regular information into a format that is unreadable except to people authorized to read it. For example, using encryption, a simple email can be turned into a string of random characters. That email can then be sent out knowing that only someone with a special key can decrypt that string of random characters and turn it back into a readable email. Encryption is incredibly valuable for safely transmitting sensitive data.

FERPA: The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal act that protects students' privacy. FERPA prohibits University employees from distributing personal information about students such as grades, class rosters and other information that could identify the individual. The information can only be shared with the student and the student's parents.

File Sharing: The process of sending a file from one computer to another computer. Some file sharing systems allow multiple computers to draw files down from one central machine. Other file sharing systems only transfer files from one computer to another. This individual computer to computer type of file sharing is often referred to as peer to peer file sharing.

Firewall: A security tool that protects an individual computer or even an entire network from unauthorized attempts to access your system. Firewalls often protect e-mail servers from receiving spam. A firewall will also scan both incoming and outgoing communications for your personal information and prevent it from leaving your computer without permission.

Hacker: A hacker is someone who has the technical capability to intentionally breach or "hack" into a computer system to steal confidential information or to cause damage to a computer or whole network. Hackers are often looking to find financial or personal information in order to steal money or identities. They are not nice people.

HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol): This is the predominant language that computers use to communicate with each other on the Internet. Web site addresses tend to start with http://www.

HTTPS: If a Web address begins with https, it indicates that the Web site is equipped with an additional security layer. Typically, users must provide a password or other means of authentication to access the site. This is often used when making payments online or accessing classified information. When asked to provide personal information online, such as a credit card purchase, always look for https in the URL before you do so. If it's not there, the site is not secure—and neither is your information.

Instant Messaging (IM): Instant messaging rivals e-mail as the most popular form of online communication. IM allows users to relay messages to each other in real time for a "conversation" between two or more people. IM is also becoming the quickest new threat to network security. Because many IM systems have been slow to add security features, hackers have found IM a useful means of spreading viruses, spyware, phishing scams, and a wide variety of worms. Typically, these threats have infiltrated systems through attachments or contaminated messages.

Integrity: A condition where a data resource remains unchanged from an intended value established by an authorized identity.

IP Address: An Internet Protocol Address identifies the location of networked machines such as computers, routers and printers. An IP Address is similar to a street address, because it identifies where a computer is located the same way that a street address identifies where a building is located.

MAC address: A Media Access Control address (MAC address) helps uniquely identify computers. The MAC address is actually identifying the network adapter. Registering your MAC address with CITES Security can help track down your computer if it is lost or stolen. This is particularly useful for laptops.

Malware: This term refers to any "malicious software" created to damage or illegally access a computer or network. Computer viruses, worms, spyware, and adware are all examples of malware.

MPAA: The Motion Picture Association of America is an organization made up of all of the major film studios in Hollywood. While most people may know the MPAA for its movie rating system, the MPAA has started to act on behalf of its members to protect their copyrights. The MPAA has used many of the same tactics as the RIAA, including lobbying Congress for stiffer penalties for file sharers, suing individuals, filing copyright complaints with Universities, and suing the creators of file sharing programs.

NAT: Network Address Translation. This technology allows private IP addresses to communicate over a public network like the internet. Typically it is used to allow multiple computers to share a single internet connection and as a means of protecting home networks.

Password: A word, phrase or series of characters that grants you access to a service. You should never disclose your password to anyone, nor should you write it down or email it.

PasswordVault: PasswordVault is a useful program that helps you safely and securely store your many passwords. The program can be downloaded at no cost by any member of the UIUC community.

Patches: Software creators will often send updates for their programs that fix security vulnerabilities. These fixes are literally patching the holes in the software, so they are often referred to as patches. Some of the most common patches are created to fix operating system vulnerabilities.

P2P: Peer-to-peer (often shortened to P2P) is a specific type of file sharing network. Original file sharing networks used a single centralized server that searches and files would pass through. P2P directly connects one computer to another to make file transfers and to share bandwidth. This often makes the files transfer faster. P2P networks are often more difficult more monitor than a centralized file server.

Personal Information: Any information that can personally identify you, such as your name, address, phone numbers, your schedule, Social Security number, bank account number, credit card account numbers, family members' names or friends' names.

Phishing: Like the sport it's named after, phishing refers to an urgent instant message or e-mail message meant to lure recipients into responding. Often these messages will appear to be from a friend, a bank or other legitimate source asking for personal information such as names, passwords, Social Security numbers or credit card information. These messages might also direct users to phony Web sites to trick users into providing personal information. Users falling for the "bait," often have their money or identities stolen.

RIAA: The Recording Industry Association of America. This organization represents the record labels and distributors that produce and sell roughly 90% of recorded music in the United States. The RIAA is most commonly known for attempting to stop online file sharing of music. Some of its tactics have included publicity campaigns, suing alleged file sharers, suing companies that create file sharing programs, filing complaints with universities and ISPs, and flooding file sharing networks with bogus files, viruses and tracking programs.

Sensitive Information: Sensitive information is an ever growing list of personal identifiers. Essentially, anything that can be used to identify who you are or access any secure accounts, can be considered sensitive data. In order to avoid identity theft or online fraud, it is important to carefully guard your sensitive information. Examples of information you should protect includes, but is not limited to, passwords, Social Security Numbers, your phone number, your address, your birth date, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, and answers to common password retrieval questions (for example, What is your favorite color? or What is your mother's maiden name?)

Social Engineering: This refers to a direct communication, either in person, by phone, by fax or over the Internet, designed to trick you into providing your personal information. These messages usually ask you to "update" or "confirm" information by typing in a reply or clicking on a link. Legitimate institutions, such as banks, do not send e-mail or IM of this nature due to security concerns on the Internet. "Phishing" is a prime example of social engineering.

Social Networking Sites: These are Web sites, such as Facebook or MySpace, where users build online profiles and share personal information, opinions, photographs, blog entries, and other media to network with other users, to find new friends or find a new job. Unfortunately, social networking sites have become targets of online predators, spammers, and other dangerous forces on the Web.

Spam: Unsolicited, commercial e-mail messages that are sent out in bulk, often to millions of users in hopes that one person may actually reply. Spam messages often involve Internet hoaxes and should be deleted immediately. Responding to a spam message will confirm to the sender that they have reached a legitimate e-mail address and they will more than likely continue to send messages to that address.

Spim: A new term for spam messages being sent to instant message addresses. Simply ignore them. Also, never respond to a message that looks like spim. A response will confirm to the sender that your account is legitimate and it's likely the messages will continue.

Spoofing: Forging an e-mail or instant message address to make it appear as if it came from someone or somewhere other than the true source. Whole Web sites can also be spoofed, tricking users into providing their passwords or other personal information, such as their credit card information.

Spyware: Spyware refers to a software program that slips into your computer without your consent to track your online activity. These programs tend to piggyback on another software program. When the user downloads and installs the software, the spyware is also installed without the user's knowledge. There are different forms of spyware that track different types of activity. Some programs monitor what Web sites you visit, while others record key stokes to steal personal information, such as credit card numbers, bank account information or passwords.

SSH: SSH is an abbreviation for Secure Shell which creates a secure network channel to send files between two computers.

SSL: SSL is an abbreviation for Secure Sockets Layer. This protocol creates encrypted online communications for things such as web browsing, email and instant messaging.

Telnet: Telnet is one of the oldest network protocols still used today. Dating back to 1969, it has since been replaced by more secure modes of online communication. However, some people still use telnet to troubleshoot some UNIX systems. Use of telnet for other reasons is discouraged because all information is transported as cleartext.

Trojan horse: If you read "The Iliad" in high school, you will remember that the Trojan horse concealed an army and fooled the citizens of Troy into taking it inside its city walls. Once inside the city gates, the army was let loose and brought Troy down. Similarly, in computer security terms, a Trojan horse refers to a malicious program that enters a computer or system disguised or embedded within legitimate software. Once installed on a computer, a Trojan horse will delete files, access your personal information, reconfigure your computer or even allow hackers to use your computer as a weapon against other computers on a network.

Virus: A computer virus refers to a program that enters your computer—often through e-mail or Internet downloads—and makes copies of itself, spreading throughout your computer and files. There is a wide range of computer viruses out there. They can be anything from merely annoying to horribly damaging—deleting files or making your computer inoperable. Keep in mind that viruses attach themselves to an application on a computer and aren't actually executed until that application is accessed or run.

VoIP: Voice Over IP (or VoIP) is a way to route conversations, such as telephone conversations, over the internet or other networks.

VPN: A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a secure, encrypted network that allows information to be confidentially shared. At UIUC, using VPN allows members of the UIUC community to safely access sensitive on campus servers from off campus connections. VPN allows many UIUC students, faculty and staff to safely work at home.

WPA: WPA stands for Wi-Fi Protected Access. WPA was developed in response to security vulnerabilities found in WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) which was found to have too many security vulnerabilities. WPA is much more secure system and you should use WPA when setting up your home wireless system.

WEP: WEP stands for Wired Equivalent Privacy. It was originally developed to secure wireless networks. However, many security vulnerabilities were identified. Because this security system is insecure, it is recommended that you do not use WEP, and instead utilize the WPA scheme to secure your wireless network.

Worm: Just as a worm burrows through an apple making it inedible, a computer worm is a program built to reproduce itself and spread across a network, rendering it ineffective. A worm may be designed to complete several different malicious activities. However, one common denominator is that a worm can harm a network by consuming large amounts of bandwidth, potentially shutting the network down. Viruses, on the other hand, are more limited to targeting computers one-at-a-time. A virus also requires other programs to execute and replicate, whereas a worm can act independently of other programs.

Zombie: A computer overtaken by a hacker and used to perform malicious tasks. Commonly, zombie computers are used to send large amounts of spam or host fraudulent Web sites.