Computer and Internet Protection

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by Mike Elliott

Just after finishing my column last month where I opened up about my pocket-notepad obsession, I happened to jot down a note about a book in the bookstore (where I happened to be writing my column) that I wanted to follow up on. It took the last page in my current notepad, so when I got home, I had to grab a new one from my supplies cabinet—and of course, I also got out needle nose pliers to fix the spiral binding so the cover and pages flip correctly, too. I just had to smile about the technology in it all (or lack thereof). I’m sure someday I’ll use an iPhone XL or similar device to take my notes. I’ve been a long-time user of the touch-screen Palm Pilot prior to adopting the BlackBerry phone, but it never quite did the trick for note taking. I’m not sure an iPhone will either. I may forever have a pen and notepad bulging from my shirt pocket. I don’t mind, but I know my wife wishes I’d ditch it from a fashion perspective.

It was my dad who I first recall carrying his “memory bank” in his shirt pocket. He didn’t have the “flip power” of the pad I use today, but he did have good-quality 3×5 cards he used in much the same fashion. As a public high school administrator, he made sure to collect the old cards from his school’s library card catalog system that got tossed each year as replacement books made their way onto the shelves—remember flipping through those? It’s the ones with the hole in the bottom of the card where a rod held them in the drawer as you flipped through them when searching for a book. (Some of you younger folks reading this probably are scratching your heads now with the same puzzled look you got when I tried to explain carbon paper.) Over time, he amassed quite a collection of those cards, blank on one side and perfect for making notes. At one point he even obtained a card catalog cabinet that was headed for the dump to make room for the computers that were taking over. I guess you could say I’ve come by my notepad obsession through the gene pool. But I’m glad. There’s a certain comfort knowing you’ve captured fleeting thoughts that might otherwise slip your mind and be lost forever.

I wanted to work my dad in here because it leads me to the subject of this month’s column: protecting your computer (and you) from the variety of threats on the Internet. If you recall, my first article over a year ago specifically addressed the problem with malware, all the bad stuff on the Internet. Well, my dad’s recent experience in loading Symantec’s Norton 360 protection suite lead to more nightmares than it solved. As I looked through the Symantec online forums where others have shared their experiences and appear to hold out eternal hope for getting informed suggestions on how they might fix their own nightmares, I realized that this problem is much bigger.

“What problem?” you ask. It’s the problem of major complications when loading security protection software. My dad still isn’t able to access the Internet on the computer he loaded the 360 product on, and that’s after numerous tech support calls with reasonably friendly staff located in faraway places around the globe. So, although I want to continue with the Screen Size Matters topic (and I will next month), I first want to clear up a few definitions of various product categories and layout some basic options that might help you ensure you have adequate system protection, with luck without the nightmares.
First, it’s important to know that many security/protection suites contain a number of different products that cover the different vulnerability areas. They are:

AntiVirus/AntiSpyware – protection against viruses, worms, spyware, botnets, and trojans
Anti-Rootkit – protection against hidden threats including keyloggers
Firewall – blocks hacker attacks (and some manage program activity)
Anti-Spam – filters out unwanted and fraudulent e-mails
Anti-Phishing – Blocks fraudulent websites

It’s also important to know that each area can also be covered by software tools available specifically for that area. A suite isn’t the only answer, and in this case it may be a more problematic “solution.”

Breaking it Down

The approach I’m going to take with my dad is to reduce the protection offered by the Norton 360 product, and instead limit it to the role of providing only Anti-Virus. Then we’ll move the other protection needs to other software. One thing to remember is that you don’t want to have multiple copies of AntiVirus or Firewall software running on your system simultaneously or you’ll be inviting conflicts that could lead to other problems, and at a minimum you’ll be unnecessarily bogging down your computer with unnecessary redundancies. At the same time, multiple spam filters and anti-spyware detectors aren’t necessarily a bad idea.

Here’s the break down for each category, including what I’ll do with my dad’s system and then I’ll cover my preference for my systems. Because in general, I’ve never found a single vendor who can supply uniformly great components that cover all the vulnerabilities, without some serious downside.

AntiVirus / AntiSpyware

For my dad’s system, as noted, we’ll just narrow the focus of his Symantec suite so that it deals with AntiVirus responsibilities and AntiVirus ONLY. I’ve been a fan of AVG for a long time, especially since they offer a very capable and free version (see http://free.avg.com/) of their AntiVirus tool. If we run into any complications reducing the scope of his Symantec Norton 360 Suite, we’ll probably toss it out completely and move to AVG (If we can get the Symantec bugger uninstalled sufficiently). One downside of the AVG tool is that it maintains a somewhat confusing prompt on the main screen that encourages you to move up to their “Full” version; that’s something I can live with for a free product. Not a bad trade-off, I imagine. Also, only the paid version offers any type of rootkit protection (see http://www.avg.com/2210 for a comparison).

Firewalls

Firewall configuration takes up a lot of space on Internet forums, meaning people have a lot of difficulty with them. They’re notoriously complicated and can be confusing to the lay person. And when you add the intrusive requests that require your response for approval while the firewall learns what should and shouldn’t be allowed in and out of your system, the frustration can grow. For someone with a lot of computer operations knowledge, the questions are fairly easy to answer, however most folks will be dumbfounded when confronted with a request such as “Allow scvhost.dll to access the Internet zone?” That’s why I tend to recommend the Windows firewall for Windows users, which is what we’ll do for my dad, and I imagine the Apple Mac OSX firewall (included with OSX) is similarly easy to use on Macs. But again, what you gain in ease of use, you likely give up in flexibility and strength. But for most, it’s good enough. I’m a long-time ZoneAlarm firewall user and really like the amount of control it provides, but this product clearly benefits from an operator who knows a good bit about networking. Once you go beyond the wizards for advanced configuration options, you have to get pretty deep into networking details quickly.

AntiSpyware

For my dad’s system, we’ll probably enable the Windows Defender, a free Anti-Spyware tool accessible from the Control Panel in the Security Center. It gets free updates when available through the Windows Update service. We’ll probably enable the anti-phishing filter in his Internet web browser while we’re at it. Then I’ll add a dose of recommendation that he really take care about which emails he opens and which website links he chooses to visit. It never hurts to do a Google search on a company represented in a link, and if it turns out to be somewhat reputable, follow the link in Google and not the one in your email.

Spam-Protection

My dad uses Microsoft Outlook to manage his email since he’s a Microsoft Office user (which includes Outlook). For additional spam protection on top of the “Junk Mail” folder that Microsoft Outlook offers, I’ve had great results with InBoxer and Cloudmark. The latter has support for Windows Mail and Mozilla’s Thunderbird email client as well.
Hopefully this whirlwind tour through computer and Internet security can help you navigate the options available to you—and hopefully keep you off the phone with support. It’s no fun, I can assure you. But it is necessary to maintain up-to-date protection on all your computers.

Send feedback and suggestions to [email protected] And thank you for reading Information Upgrade in the Crozet Gazette!