(Mostly) Free Security Software- A Primer
Security Suites offer the simplicity of the "all-in-one" solution. Typically, they offer a firewall, an AV, an anti-spyware, and possibly other features, all from a single vendor with guaranteed compatibility. What's not to like about such a simple solution?
1) The easiest answer is that while suites might excel in any one area ( a good AV, or a good firewall, etc) they seldom excel in all areas. They generally offer a "jack-of-all-trades, master of none" approach. It is a compromise between simplicity and protection. For some, it might be the best option. However, for most, I think the free alternatives I recommend are the better choice.
2) Suites, in general, are not free. Although both Comodo and Agnitum offer a free suite, I can recommend neither, as the Anti-virus module of both has not been subjected to independent testing.
3) Many Suites have a reputation for slowing down one's PC and browsing, due to high CPU/memory use.
4) When individual components of Security Suites cause problems or conflicts, it is often impossible to replace them with alternatives, without deleting the entire suite. Some suites are so territorial that they tolerate no other on-demand scanners.
5) Many ISP's offer "free" security suites for protection, including mine. The last time I checked, the version was out-of-date. These programs are often not supported by the original vendor, and should not be considered as equivalent.
*** In any event, I would never trust my PC's security to my ISP***.
Even the very best firewall, AV and anti-malware programs (paid or free) will not protect you if you engage in unsafe practices such as:
1) Opening or responding to email from unknown senders
2) Opening email attachments (even from known senders) without saving/scanning them first
3) Visiting porno sites
4) Using websites that offer "cracks" (warez) to avoid paying for a program
5) Using p2p (peer-to-peer) file-sharing programs to download free music, movies etc
6) Not keeping your applications, browser, and operating system updated and patched
7) Downloading programs that you do not know are absolutely safe, and from reputable websites
8) Allowing children/teenagers (or anyone else, for that matter) unsupervised access to the internet
9) Giving out personal ID/passwords/credit card info to websites or emails you are not absolutely sure are secure. [Secure sites begin with https, rather than simply http ; and a 'lock' image should appear somewhere on your browser toolbar].
As security programs get better, the bad guys increasingly realize that you, the user, are the weakest link, and use ever more sophisticated schemes to get you to bypass your security layers. Be very careful out there ...
- Switch to OpenDNS
One free change to significantly enhance your browsing security is to switch to OpenDNS.
This involves no hardware or software changes; what it does is change your DNS servers from your internet provider to those of OpenDNS. DNS (Domain Name System) servers are what translate your typed Internet addresses (eg: whatever.com) into numerical addresses (eg: 123.45.678.90) that allows you to connect to websites. And simply put, these servers at OpenDNS are almost surely more reliable, safer, and faster than those of your internet provider.
When you create an account at OpenDNS, you will be able to selectively block a number of categories of websites (adult content, chat sites, gaming and gambling sites, P2P/filesharing, phishing websites, etc) to selectively prevent other users of your computer from accessing them.
The process is simple:
1) Enable OpenDNS on your PC or router
2) Create a free account (email address required)
3) Customize your DNS filtering, to block only the categories and specific websites you wish, using their Dashboard.
I can see no downside to using this free service, and highly recommend it. It works with any browser and any operating system. I particularly like the Family Shield offered which filters out a number of website categories not suitable for family viewing. See here.
- Install the Web of Trust (WOT) Toolbar
I'm not a fan of toolbars in general, but WOT won me over. In fact, it is the only 3rd party toolbar I use.
WOT is a free community-based browser toolbar that rates websites, and warns you if you attempt to visit an unsafe site. It functions much like McAfee's SiteAdvisor and Firetrust's SiteHound, both of which I found lacking in various ways. WOT is compatible with Windows 2000/XP/Vista/Win 7, and works with Internet Explorer, Opera, Chrome, Safari and Firefox browsers. I give it 2 thumbs up!
A good demo on how WOT works is here.
You can download WOT from here.
- Play in a Sandbox
The biggest source of infection these days is by visiting hacked or malicious websites. Some of these sites can infect by merely visiting them, via so-called "drive-by downloads" of malicious code. Even trusted sites can be hacked. The bad guys are expert at tricking you to click on links to infected sites, using principles of "social engineering".
Fortunately, you can run your web browser in a sandbox to prevent all of this.
A "sandbox" is a 3rd party program, that enables you to run any program - including your browser - in a virtual environment that is quarantined/ isolated from the rest of your computer. Any malicious code will make it into your sandbox, but will not be written to your hard drive. It wil be eliminated when you delete the contents of your sandbox.
One such sandbox I can vouch for from personal experience is Sandboxie, which can be downloaded from here. Tutorial on using it is here.
This is a 30 day free trial of the paid version. If, after 30 days, you decide not to purchase it, you are still left with a functional sandbox, minus a few bells and whistles. This is a freebie I can recommend without reservations.
More info on safe computing practices:
How did I get infected?
Securing one's PC against the nasties can seem daunting to the novice, and the programs recommended above are not an exhaustive list by any means. You certainly do not need them all, but before going online, should at least ensure you have an antivirus, firewall, and an anti-spyware program up and running.
A frequently asked question is "What is the best (Antivirus/firewall/antispyware etc)?" There is no correct answer to this- one size does not fit all. Ultimately you will have to try these programs out, and decide for yourself what works best for you, in your particular circumstances. The programs I have recommended are a good starting point. Most are free, and all are easily uninstalled if they are not to your liking. Their support forums are a tremendous help to trouble-shoot any problems you might encounter.
The opinions of the regular posters/experts at Dell's security forums have been most helpful to me in the construction of this website. I am particularly grateful for the editorial review by ky331.
Any errors or omissions here are entirely mine.
I have also been influenced by the experts at the following Security websites, which I can strongly recommend for further reading: