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1/7/2004
11:50 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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The Explorer: Making Your PC Secure Online, Part Two

In Part One, we showed how to adjust your network settings for better security. Now we'll look at free and commercial add-on products and services that do even more.

If you've already taken the essential steps outlined in Four Myths of Online Security, you've already closed the worst security holes found in most PC networking setups. Now that you have good, basic online security from hacker attacks, you're ready to add the final touches that will make your PC safe from virtually all the common, casual types of attacks, and quite resistant to even highly-skilled or devious attacks as well. This combination of an inherently safe setup PLUS an add-on security product also means you have two levels of defense; if anything goes wrong with one level, you'll still have the other to protect you. Before you add any security products to your system, use an external test to verify that your setup is still OK. It's a good idea to schedule either weekly or monthly checks of your system's security to ensure nothing has altered your basic security setup, and your PC is still basically safe.

I know of three excellent, free sites that will try to probe your Internet connection from the outside, helping you to detect and correct potential security problems:

http://grc.com/intro.htm
http://www.dslreports.com/r3/dsl/secureme
http://www.antionline.com/

I've been using the three sites in series: they test similar things (so there is some overlap) but with different methods and emphases. By running tests on the three sites one after the other, you can sniff your system's Internet connection for all the most common security trouble spots. If you pass all three tests, you can be pretty sure that you're secure from the most common types of hack attacks.

The Gibson Research site (http://grc.com/intro.htm) also has extensive help files that are worth reading. In particular, if you find you have trouble closing a specific port (such as the infamous Port 39/NetBIOS), Gibson has extensive step-by-step instructions on ways to ensure the port gets closed and stays closed: See http://grc.com/su-bondage.htm.

Once your PC passes all the above tests, you're ready to add a security-boosting application. There are many, many choices, but perhaps the hottest category of all right now is "Personal Firewalls," and that's what we'll focus on a selection of them in this column.

Regardless of whether or not you're behind a corporate firewall, network address translator or proxy, these local firewalls sit on your PC and monitor your Internet traffic to block inappropriate access from hackers. Some go even further and watch for unusual outbound activity -- the sort of surreptitious "phoning home" that a Trojan Horse program might do, sending information about you or your PC back to some third party source, without your knowledge or consent.

My current favorite personal firewall remains the free and excellent ZoneAlarm.

Although it still has some rough spots, it's evolving fast (the current version is 2.0.26), and has overcome many of the problems of over-reporting and crashing that sometimes plagued the earlier versions. Despite the fact that's it's free, ZoneAlarm does more than some $50 commercial products: For example, it's one of the few firewalls that will detect a Trojan app trying to "phone home."

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