Stealth Chatter

My PC is talking behind my back. Or at least it's trying to

My PC is talking behind my back. Or at least its trying to.

I finally got around to installing a firewall about three months ago and Ive been amazed at the amount of background chatter that goes on — either from my PC to mysterious Internet Protocol (IP) addresses or from nefarious external entities trying to conduct port scans of my system.

Its all rather troubling and invasive, and I put a stop to it by programming my firewall to block the exchanges. But I can still watch the attempted interactions, and there are an alarming number of them. Here are a few examples:

• Someone at IP address port 37 wanted to send UDP data to port 137 on my computer.

• Microsoft Word from my computer wanted to connect to port 80 — an IP address allocated to America Online.

• Somebody at — registered to — tried to connect to my system.

And then theres RealNetworks. The companys software is chock- full of spyware. I know its been well-publicized but, by default, its applications are set to gather and report back information about users online activities. RealNetworks says much of that information is anonymous statistical data that helps it improve its products and services; users can also modify the software settings to not transmit any data. Still, many people probably dont know how to disable those features, which amounts to a surreptitious invasion of privacy.

The more I find out about these clandestine digital whisperings, the more I feel a danger that my PC really isnt my own.

Im not paranoid. I buy things online. I dont pay much attention to cookies, because they generally make it easier to get around, and I generally say what I damn well please in e-mails.

But let there be no doubt: Its a jungle out there. If you dont have a personal firewall, get one. I use one from Tiny Software, and there are scads more on the market that cost very little and are easy to install. Dithering about it only leaves you open to full-scale intrusion or, even worse, the chance that your PC could be invisibly commandeered to carry out attacks on other computers without your ever knowing it.

Its true that many security vendors make hay of the general atmosphere of fear and loathing about security threats online. I dont think thats entirely right, but a firewall is now pretty much a necessity. Otherwise youll get burned.