The insecure nature of connecting to the Internet is widely acknowledged yet many people still do not take the precautions necessary to keep themselves safe. The scope of this article is limited to securing the actual system not necessarily the user. Unfortunately, there is no software available that can secure a user. That is up to the user. Despite the user’s Internet behavior, securing the system he or she operates on is key to a safe Internet experience.
There are three main aspects we will cover;
- Web Browser
For those of you who do not know a firewall is what separates your system from the rest of the Internet. It is like the Bee-Keeper’s mask, it lets the air in and keeps the bugs out. Instead of Bees we need to worry about Malware. What is Malware? It is any software with a nefarious purpose. You have probably heard of Spyware. This is a type of Malware, as are most viruses and Adware. Often the creators of this Malware would argue with my labeling them as such but in my opinion the only thing that matters is the impact the software has on the system and inherently the user. For this reason I would include many popular software products in this category, such as Symantec’s Internet Security Suite which I have found to greatly degrade the performance of a system.
More recognizable forms of Malware are viruses. If you’ve worked on a large network in the past 10 years you’ve likely experienced slow-downs or even shut-downs due to virus activity. How these viruses spread is key to stopping them. A good firewall may keep these buggers out of your computer. What do I recommend? Well if your running a PC with Windows XP I recommend your also run Sygate Personal Firewall (S.P.F.). You can search for it on google and find a place to download it for free. It is such a good firewall that Symantec even tried to shut it down to stifle the competition by buying it. They stopped all further production of the software and will likely claim it is old or obsolete now. The truth is the old version of S.P.F. that is floating around cyber-space is just as, if not more, effective than Symantec’s current firewall solution.
How can S.P.F. still be good? It’s simple. A TCP/IP network connection (the kind you use to connect to the Internet) consists of IP addresses and ports. An IP address is like a phone number and a port is like an extension. When another system wants to talk to your system it calls your IP address and tries to communicate on a certain port. Software on your system listens to certain ports and responds if it receives a communication. The same is true in reverse. Software on your system communicates with remote systems using their IP address and a certain port.
To get back to our topic, securing these ports on your system is the purpose of a firewall. And S.P.F. does a good job of it. It is also quite easy to install. I recommend disabling Window’s built in firewall before installing S.P.F. as the built in firewall is significantly less secure and covers nothing S.P.F. does not. Using S.P.F. is also quite simple. Once installed and running it will ask the user for permission before allowing a program to access the Internet. The first time you start your web browser after installing S.P.F. you will be asked if it is okay for the browser to access the internet. Sense this is a program you know needs to use the internet it is appropriate to check the “remember this decision” box and click yes. If a program you are not familiar with tries to access the Internet simple click no and it will not be allowed to do so.
Running a firewall such as S.P.F. will prevent Malware from inserting itself into your system through the network connection. It will not help you with Malware that is already running on your system. To do that you need to run Malware cleaners that will scan your system and remove the known dangerous pieces of software. There are more Anti-Malware solutions available than I can keep track of. Currently I favor Avast. Its main objective is to find and remove Viruses from your system. It also has real-time scanning capabilities along with communications filtering. If setup correctly it will even filter viruses from chat clients such as AIM.
Viruses are not the only form of Malware that need to be cleaned from a system. Adware and Spyware are quite troublesome. Beyond the obvious security issues they can, and likely will, significantly dampen the performance of your system. To remove them I recommend using Spybot and Adaware. It should be noted that these programs may remove Adware or Spyware that programs you use may require. An example of this is Divx’s Adware version which allows you to use all of Divx’s features as long as you run their Adware on your system. Removing the Adware rendered Divx’s useless. You should remove only the Adware you know you do not need. I recommend avoiding any software that requires you to install any type of Malware as it will likely have a detrimental impact on your system and 99% of these have safer alternatives.
The final aspect I will talk about is the Web Browser. This is likely the most commonly overlooked of all the security holes in connecting to the Internet. Some of you may even remember when ActiveX first came out it was possible to make a very simple website that would delete files from your harddrive simply by visiting it. Surely this was not an intended use of the technology when Microsoft developed it, none the less it was quickly exploited. As such it was not quite so quickly patched by Microsoft. Since its inscription Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) has been an insecure and buggy browser. Supposedly all this has been fixed in the latest release but I’m not quick to believe the claims.
Luckily for us there has always been a good alternative. Most notably of these are the Mozilla based browsers. Netscape ruled for a long time as the most popular alternative to IE and yes it was (er’ is, oh yeah it’s still around, kind of) a Mozilla based browser. Currently the biggest competition to IE is coming from Firefox. You may have heard of it. Anyone who knows what their doing these days uses Firefox. It is not only capable of everything IE is but it goes well beyond the scope of normal browsing. Firefox had tabbed browsing and had it working well long before IE. It is also much more secure than IE has ever been. Given the current emphasis on development it is an easy choice for a Web Browser.
My favorite Firefox feature is the ability to install user developed extensions. These allow the browser to do anything a decent programmer wants. And the extensions are so easy to install that even a novice user can likely find the features they want and extend their browser without trouble or fear of messing up their browser. Simply browse their website for an extensive list of tested extensions. Another product offered by the developers of Firefox is Thunderbird, which is an excellent Email client developed with the same methodology as Firefox. I use both of these on my systems.
That about wraps up this article but I’m sure if you made it this far it doesn’t wrap up your curiosity on the subject. Internet Security is such an extensive and dynamic subject no couple page article could possibly cover it all. However you can rest assured that if you take the advice I gave here you will be a step up on security and best of all you can do it for free. These solutions have and will likely continue to work quite well for me. If you have others that work for you and have a good understanding of them and the level of security you have achieved with them by all means do not think you need to switch. That understanding is the key to your security. Good luck, and watch who you give your Email address lest you end up with more spam than you can read.