10 free tools to make your PC safer


Philippe Decoene, a Belgian politician from the sp.a feels the government should provide all Belgian citizens with free software tools to protect their PC against threats from the Internet.
He sees 2 ways of providing free software for everyone:

  • government creates a task force of Belgian top-notch developers and develop/adapt software for the Belgian surfers.
  • government buys someone’s product/service through a public tender, and Belgians can use it

In my opinion, the latter is a bad idea, and the former is a very bad idea.

While I agree that too many surfers with too little understanding make the Internet a paradise for rogue hackers, I don’t think it’s the government’s responsibility to provide people with software.

Dear politicians, if you’re wondering what you should do:

  • Inform the public: make an advertising campaign about spam and spyware that people remember and talk about (sex sites, breast enlargement pills, herbal viagra, get rich quick, …; agencies like DuvalGuillaume, LG&F and Mortierbrigade could do wonders with this stuff!). Consider what BIVV did with the BOB campaign.
  • Educate through school: make sure no one leaves high school without knowing the difference between antivirus and firewall software. Unprotected sex is not intelligent, and neither is an unprotected PC.
  • Educate through media. We already have Kijk-Uit for traffic education, why not have a weekly program that covers computer security for the layman. Explain what a hoax is so everyone stops forwarding them.
  • Warn for calamities: the BIPT already has an early warning service, but it looks just a tad amateuristic (for one, it needs a decent web designer, creating web pages in MS-Word is a bad idea). The disclaimer for its SMS-alert service is funny:

    Het BIPT is echter niet aansprakelijk indien zijn sms-dienst door derden wordt misbruikt om informatie te verstrekken of in geval inbreuk op de privacy veroorzaakt wordt door een virus.
    (The BIPT is not liable if its SMS-service is abused by a third party to provide information or if a virus causes a breach of privacy)

As for the 10 free tools mentioned in the title:

1. WINDOWS UPDATE
Indispensable. You should run the Windows Update program once a week, or once a month at the very least. It will automatically look for bug fixes, security patches, driver updates and install them. When you get a new PC, run this several times (some stuff cannot be installed together with other patches) until all critical updates are done.
In Internet Explorer: Tools/Windows Update – on your desktop: Start/Windows Update
2. PERSONAL FIREWALL
Indispensable. From the moment your PC goes on-line, it will take less than 24 hours for it to be probed by ‘hostile’ computers for vulnerabilities. To make your PC invisible to other computers and protect it against these attacks, you needs a firewall. You might already be protected by a company firewall, or a WiFi router, but install a personal firewall anyway, certainly if you have a laptop.
Try ZoneAlarm (free for home use) or Kerio (free for home use) or Windows XP Service Pack 2
(Remark: you cannot use 2 firewall programs at the same time!)
3. ANTIVIRUS
Indispensable. A program that will check every file just before you save or use it and see if it holds a virus. This kind of software uses a database of virus signatures (i.e. something unique about each virus that allows its detection) and new viruses are born everyday, so this database needs to be updated regularly.
Try AntiVir (free for home use). An alternative is HouseCall (free), but you need to be on-line to use it (it works inside your browser).
4. SPYWARE REMOVER
Indispensable. Websites, emails and hardly-legal software (like Kazaa, Morpheus, Emule, eDonkey, …) will try to install spyware or adware on your computer, so that they can take over your homepage, your search page, or just pop up advertisements on your screen every now and then.
Try Ad-aware (free for non-commercial use) or Spybot S&D (free)
(You can have both programs installed on the same PC, they each find stuff that the other doesn’t. Run them once a month.)
5. POPUP-BLOCKER
Indispensable. If you ever were to browse an X-rated site that keeps on popping up new windows filled with undressed women in uncomfortable position, and there seems to be no way to stop this from happening, and your boss is approaching your desk, you would know why these come in handy.
Try the Google or MSN or Yahoo! toolbar. It’s a question of taste.
6. SPAM FILTER
Indispensable. Estimates are that 60 to 80% of all email is spam (Unsollicited Commercial Email). If you do not receive spam yet, it might be because you don’t have an email address. If you’re gonna be leaving an email address on sites (dating, classifieds, job site, …), get a Hotmail/Yahoo/Gmail address just for that. If you receive spam on an address that you cannot easily change,install one of the following spam detectors.
Try Popfile (open-source, free) or Spambayes (open-source, free)
7. BACKUP
Essential. We all know we should take backups, but we seldom do. And once that hard disk crashes: agony! Forget backup on floppy, tape or CD. Get a 2nd hard disk or an external one (they cost $1/GB). Disk-to-disk backup is fast and requires no manual intervention.
Try the Windows NT Backup program (included in Windows 2000 and XP Pro, and available on XP Home) or SimplySafeBackup
Start/Programs/Accessories/System Tools/Backup
8. SAFER BROWSER
Nice to have. Since most people use Internet Explorer, most hackers concentrate on that browser. Does the word ‘Hotbar’ ring a bell? But there are good alternatives.
Try Firefox (open-source, free) or Opera (free)
9. SAFER EMAIL
Nice to have. If you’re on a corporate Exchange Server, you are obliged to work with Outlook. Since it is the most popular email client, and not the safest one, it is the most under attack. But at home, you have other options!
Try Outlook Express (included with Windows) or Thunderbird (open-source, free)
10. SAFER MESSENGER
Nice to have. MSN, AOL and Yahoo Messenger are very popular, but can be used for letting unsuspecting recipients install stuff they are not aware of. If you chat a lot with family, friends and fools, consider install one safe messenger client that connects to all your accounts at the same time.
Try Trillian Basic or Gaim

Live traffic info


Yahoo just announced that they now have live traffic information on their mapping service:

In a milestone for Internet-based traffic services, Yahoo! has beefed up its existing mapping services to allow customers to plot a route from one local destination to another, and overlay traffic data such as road speeds and potential delays.
(via cnn.com)

When you live in a city like Brussels, you know how unpredictable and unnerving traffic can be. Here in Belgium we also have some services that give up-to-date traffic info:

  • radio1.be gives some info on Brussels and Antwerp in text-format (not much really)
  • verkeerscentrum.be gives an map of Flanders and traffic condition for the main arteries
  • vab.be shows the traffic map info of the whole of Belgium, based on police information.
  • wegeninfo.be also gets info from the Federal Police and show it in a blog-like text-way (reverse chronological).


In France they have something much better: on parisrhinrhone.com they have 10 webcams watching the Paris/Lyon/Dijon motorways and anyone can see the live feed. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words!

William Beaty has his theory on how defensive driving helps solve traffic congestion.

That’s the whole point. We WANT people to merge ahead of us before that other lane comes to an end. If I fear that someone will leap into the space ahead of me, or if this makes me resentful or angry, then I close up ranks and prevent everyone from merging. If I try to become the “vengance police” and punish the cheaters who zoom ahead, then I close up ranks and stop all merges. Closed ranks create traffic jams. “Cheaters” don’t trigger traffic jams, it’s the people who try to punish the cheaters who do it.
Lane-jumpers are not the real problem. Traffic jams are commonly caused by people who attempt to punish the lane-jumpers by eliminating all spaces! In the merge-jam animations, the goal isn’t to maintain the empty space under any circumstance. The goal is to ALLOW PEOPLE TO MERGE AHEAD OF US! Closing up the ranks is what produces that jam in the animation.
(from amasci.com)

To see an accurate simulation of how a traffic jam is born at an highway entry, check the Martin Treiber java application.

Mappy has aerial photo overlay


They might already have it for a while, but I hadn’t noticed: Mappy.com can add an aerial picture of the neighbourhood you are searching. The street map is then overlayed on the aerial picture and you have a slider to manage the transparency of the street map. I stopped using Maporama one year back, because Mappy was just better but I hadn’t realised how much better.

Justitiepaleis/Palais de Justice
See the above result for my neighborhood (Marolles, Brussels).

You can see Rue Blaes & Rue Haute, the Breughel place, Place Poelaert, the Palais de Justice on the bottom right, a tip of the Vossenmarkt/Place Jeu de Bal in the left bottom corner.

[Listening to: “Songs for you” – royalgroove.org] (via punkey.com)

Skeemz on Brussels Jazz Marathon

Skeemz in Brussels - Pixagogo album
Brussels in the sun, what a pleasure. Some glasses of white wine, listening to music on a ‘terraske’ with some friends, yesterday was really a nice day. Certainly with the pleasant contribution of Skeemz, a Ghent-based band that played funky hip-hop/R&B music. Good lyrics, a cute singer with a great soulful voice and a young but skilled band that was obviously having fun. Supported by my favourite female drummer of the moment, Isolde Lasoen. She plays in so many bands (Skeemz, Bruno de Bruxelles, Briskey, Daan, …) so she’s actually hard to avoid on live concerts. Next appointment: Daan in Brussels on May 29th.

Here are some pictures of Skeemz: DJ Buzz, Lady Linn, Isolde Lasoen and the others.