If you can read this, you are on the World Wide Web. The Web and the Internet it rides on are a lot like the old time Wild West: exciting, full of possibilities, fun to explore, and also pretty much lawless and dangerous. The cacti may be pretty, but watch out for the spines. If you aren’t careful and alert, you can get bushwhacked. Computer security is important, and there is a lot to learn about it (I know only a little bit...).
Computer and network security, even for a home setup, should be reviewed once in a while. In the process of preparing this page, I did a little reviewing of my own, and I was surprised how much I learned. I am not trying to provide complete instructions here, just a good starting point for your own learning. Since I do not know everything, and new stuff (good and bad) is being developed all the time, do not assume that doing everything I know about will fully protect you. Odds are pretty good, though, that what I have here will at least tilt things more in your favor.
A fine place to start learning (and testing) is Steve Gibson’s company website at
I strongly suggest that you read it through and follow some of the links. At the very least, you should run his security test called Shields Up!
Whenever you go on line, your computer or network should be protected by a firewall. If you are using a high speed connection, a firewall is ESSENTIAL.
If you have only one computer connected to the Internet, a software firewall may do the job. You have to be careful about your choice, though: not all of the products offered as “firewalls” actually do the job. There is excellent information about this at the GRC website, but if you are in a hurry and are looking for a decent free firewall, you could check out ZoneAlarm (I used this for a while, and it worked fine for me). You will find ZoneLabs home page here, and the direct link to the free ZoneAlarm download here.
If you are running a computer network that shares an internet connection, get a proper hardware firewall (even with a single computer this is a good idea). Steve Gibson explains these here. For my own network, I use a Linksys router. It gives me excellent service, but as with any equipment, you should take the time to set it up properly (as in read the instructions, etc.).
Viruses and other Malware
Even with a proper firewall set up, sooner or later your computer WILL get a virus. It is possible to have an infected computer and not find out about it for a while. If your system becomes infected, not only are you at risk, but you present a hazard to the Internet community. Any program that replicates itself is a virus. Other than that, a virus might do just about anything. It might be a relatively harmless nuisance, or it may completely wreck your system. Viruses can be hidden in other programs, documents, e-mail, and possibly in other kinds of files.
If you get a virus, you want to get rid of it as soon as possible. There is all sorts of software available for the purpose, some of it better and some of it worse. I don’t even try to keep up with all of the stuff that’s out there. My personal favorite scanner is free, and operates on line. You can go visit Trend Micro, and use their free online virus scan. I think a scanner of this type is hard to beat, because it is automatically updated every time you run it. The only disadvantage that I have found is that, since it uses ActiveX controls, you have to use Internet Explorer to run it. (I prefer a different browser. More about that later...) You may want to take other additional anti-virus precautions, but this is a good start.
I am accustomed to taking certain precautions with my e-mail as a defense against viruses. Most importantly, if any e-mail has a file attachment and I do not know for sure what it is, I will usually delete that message, and above all I will NOT open or save that attachment. Any e-mail that comes from an unfamiliar source is automatically suspect.
Not all evil and intrusive programs are viruses. There is some malware (stuff that makes you computer “sick”) that does not copy itself. Malware can be used to steal your personal information, bombard you with ads you don’t want, and do other bad things. Therefore, in addition to scanning for viruses it is wise to scan for stuff like spyware and adware.
I periodically run Spybot Search & Destroy on my system to root out spyware. I must warn you, though, that this is a powerful tool, and if you use it incorrectly you can mess up your system. Make sure you carefully read the instructions that come with it before use. The scanning process itself is completely harmless, as it just puts up a list of things it thinks are suspect. Sometimes it sniffs out something that is actually OK, and then you have to tell it what to ignore. I found it fairly easy to understand, though, and I haven’t let it delete anything important yet.
Another very popular scanning tool is Ad-Aware. I sometimes use this too, although I am not sure how much its function overlaps with Spybot. It, too, is free for “personal” use.
Browsers And Such
I have a confession to make: I have a bit of a bone to pick with Microsoft. I won’t go into all of the details here, but, partly due to their high-handed policies and partly due to the way some of their software operates, I have started looking for alternatives for their products. I have reached the point where the main reason that I use Windows is because that’s what some of my most important applications run on. Some day in the future I may entirely move over to something like Linux. So far, though, I have been whittling away at my MicroSoftWare a little at a time.
Although it is difficult, if not impossible, to remove Internet Explorer from a Windows installation, it is possible to use another browser most of the time (some web sites ONLY work with IE). Some time ago I switched to Mozilla Firefox as my default web browser. I find that it offers better security, not to mention the fact that it stops popups from getting in my face with unwanted aggressive advertising. The only real problem I have with it is when a website uses Active-X controls, in which case I have to fire up Internet Explorer instead.
I have also stopped using Outlook Express. Some viruses directly target OE anyway, and it did not offer me anything that I couldn’t get by using Mozilla Thunderbird.