Secure Your PC—for Free!
Do you have a computer in your home? Do you use it to check email or access the Internet?
If so, you need to protect it from hackers, viruses, worms, and other malicious attackers.
There are four basic security tools every computer that connects to the Internet should have:
1. An Internet Firewall
2. Antivirus Software
3. Regularly run “Windows Update” (Windows 2000, ME, or XP can do automatically)
4. “Spyware” detection and removal software.
Fortunately, there are companies who, in the name of good “netizenship,” will help home users protect themselves with some free software tools. Here’s who they are and how to get the tools.
NOTE: This is intended as a basic guide illustrating some effective practices and some of the tools available to home PC users. Sinclair Community College does not endorse, or offer technical support for, any of the software or vendors listed in this article.
The purpose of a firewall is essentially to block unwanted Internet traffic from your PC. A very effective basic software firewall is ZoneAlarm, available from www.zonelabs.com. While their premium products are very effective and well worth the cost, especially for the advanced PC user, the free version they offer is effective for most users. To obtain the software, click on the link “ZoneAlarm (free)” on the Zone Labs home page. Follow the instructions for download and installation. (The default program settings are adequate for most users)
Anti-virus software detects and prevents known viruses and other malicious code from infecting your system. It is only effective against the viruses in the “signature file”, so it must be updated frequently (check at least daily). One of the major antivirus software vendors, Grisoft (www.grisoft.com), offers a good "free" AV tool. It offers a free version to "single-seat" home users, AVG Free doesn't allow scheduled scanning and full scans must be triggered manually, but it does scan email and downloaded files “on-demand”. It is available for download from www.grisoft.com. Users have to complete a survey and submit a valid email address to obtain an activation key.
After downloading AVG, but before installing it,
Visit Trend Micro and run their free on-line virus scanner http://housecall.trendmicro.com/ to ensure the PC is virus-free before installing any permanent antivirus software. Some viruses prevent antivirus software from installing or scanning properly. (Trend Micro also sells an excellent Anti-virus product and security suite, PC-cillin).
Windows Update is the tool Microsoft provides to keep Windows software updated with the latest security patches. As long as you have an Internet connection and Internet Explorer browser, you can run this tool. You should run Windows Update at least once a week.
From the Internet Explorer browser toolbar, click Tools, then Windows Update
(you may be prompted to install software from Microsoft...click "yes" or OK)
After the page loads, click the “Scan for Updates” link.
You should install all “Critical Updates” found during the scan.
If you are using Windows 2000, ME, or XP, you can set your PC to automate the Windows Update process. Instructions are different for each version of Windows and are available on the Microsoft Security Web site http://www.microsoft.com/security/articles/swupdates.asp.
Spyware is a generic—and controversial—term for software that collects information about you and transmits this information to its “home” vendor. Some spyware is harmless or even marginally beneficial as it simply tracks your Internet use habits to deliver targeted advertising; this allows some Web sites to remain free of charge. However, illicit spyware is a threat that is growing and has the potential to cause damage or steal personal information. As a minimum, users should occasionally scan their systems and eliminate any unwanted spyware. A free tool to do this is SpyWare S&D (Search & Destroy) available from http://www.safer-networking.org
The Internet-based threats to your PC are real—and growing, but they do not outweigh the benefits of the access to information and communication offered (and, of course, shopping!). With a little effort, understanding and practicing basic Information Security habits, and by using the free tools listed above, you can not only “surf” more safely and privately, but also help prevent your PC from being used to help generate the next malicious code tsunami on the Internet.
Dan O’Callaghan, CISSP