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

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