Some suggestions on how to improve the security of your computer.
With the increasing number of threats that are spreading across the web it can be difficult to know how best to protect your computer. What do you need to protect against? Will one tool protect you on all fronts? Do you get what you pay for in a tool? Can a free tool be good enough?
I’ll try to answer these questions and give some idea of what to look out for…
The threats on the web are constantly evolving and the lines between different attacks are becoming blurred. Malicious applications are increasingly combining threat vectors so it is no longer easy to distinguish between a worm, virus, trojan, adware, backdoor or the various other nasties (for an explanation of the many different pieces of nasty software take a look at the Glossary page).
What it does: It’s the bread and butter of protecting your computer from infections. It inspects any files that are being downloaded, saved, opened, edited or handled in any way and attempts to verify that the file is safe. It does this with two main functions; 1) it compares them to a list of known viruses (in this context, the term virus is used to collectively describe all malware types inluding but not limited to trojans, worms and rootkits) and 2) it tries to understand whether the file is intended to do anything malicious like changing system settings or files.
Where to find it: From Windows Vista onwards Microsoft have included an anti-virus tool (Security Essentials) which fares pretty well up against independent tests, providing a good balance of discovering infections against false positives (false alarms, incorrectly reporting a clean file as infected). While the scanning speed and resource usage is not the best, it’s also not the worst and for a free tool that’s ready to go it’s acceptable. Security Essentials has performed better overall than some paid-for products so there is no harm in sticking with this for the easy life. I won’t name names here as the AV market changes so rapidly that any comparisons are likely to be out of date quite quickly.
There are numerous independent testing bodies that have far more time and resource at their disposal than myself so I won’t attempt to better their work. One very good such source of information is AV-Comparatives. They periodically repeat their tests to keep up with new threats and patch levels. I’d recommend their “On-Demand Comparative” report (latest at time of writing is dated February 2011). The reports are quite in depth but you can skip to the interesting comparison charts that show the performance of each major AV product (includes free and paid-for). Please note that these comparison reports focus on the effectiveness of each tool (which is the most important factor) and don’t provide much detail of the extra bells and whistles.
If you’re still using Windows XP (we’ll skip the obvious WHY?!?! questions here) and you’d rather not pay for AV protection then there are a number of free tools that still measure up to provide reasonable levels of protection that I’ve linked to in a previous article.
What it does: Anti-Spam tools inspect each email that’s targeted to your inbox, compares it to a set of rules and makes an educated guess of the probability that the email is unwanted junk mail. It’s often reported that 70~85% if all email sent around the world is spam!
Where to find it: Most likely you will be using a web based email service for your day to day personal stuff like GoogleMail, Yahoo or Hotmail. As such, your emails stay on the web and the email service provider takes care of blocking unwanted spam emails so you don’t need to worry about this.
It is important to note however that no single tool gives 100% protection. You could run several tools to increase the overall protection but this would have quite an impact on the performance of your computer and there are still likely to be overlaps in the threats that are missed.
So in summary, one tool is not enough, more expensive is not necessarily more protection, and free can be good enough.