Be Less Vulnerable
Be Less Vulnerable Plenty of tools are available to keep you safe and protect your privacy online. For instance, every computer should already be running antivirus (AV) software. Antivirus software will catch the majority of known threats, provided its virus definitions are properly updated. (For more on AV software, see
"10th Annual Utility Guide" in our issue of June 11.) But AV tools work best against signature-based attacks.
Periodically check for downloadable patches for your operating system and software. You can do so at vendors Web sites, and some let you sign up for bulletins. If youre running Microsoft Windows 98 or later, run Windows Update to download fixes. Microsoft Critical Update Notification, downloadable for Windows 2000 and built into Windows XP, tells you when updates are available. For other Microsoft application patches, check out Microsoft TechNet (www.microsoft.com/technet). Click on Hotfix & Bulletin Search to see which program holes need patching. Of course, patches can remedy only the known flaws and vulnerabilities. New vulnerabilities are continually being uncovered, and hackers seek them through port scanning. (Each IP address has more than 65,000 ports through which applications can communicate.) Good firewalls can defeat such scans. The next thing to check is configuration. Browsers have dozens of security settings that define which kinds of code can run, which sites can receive information from your cookies, and so on. Run something like Qualyss Free Browser Checkup (http://browsercheck.qualys.com) to test your settings for weaknesses and find out how to fix them. Windows users can also try Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer. This free download from TechNet scans your system, looking for misconfigured settings. Youll be surprised at the number of flags that go up the first time you scan yourself. If you use instant messaging (IM), remember, dont talk to strangers. The popular free programs, like AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), expose your IP address and engage you in peer-to-peer connections when you okay file transfers. Additionally, the clients can use most ports, including port 80 (the one for Web traffic, which most firewalls leave open). Such openings offer easy entry for hackers who gain the confidence of the unsuspecting.
Next, youll want to consider a firewall of some sort. Firewalls come in two flavors: software and hardware. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and neither covers all the bases to our satisfaction. We review six software firewalls and five hardware firewalls in the pages that follow. But before you erect those lines of defense, follow these simple (and free) steps.