Basic Internet Security: What You Need (And What You Don't)

The Internet can be a dangerous place. Learn how to protect yourself from the most common risks with the essential components of good personal security for your PC.

Internet security isn't something most people give a lot of thought to. However, security on the Net isn't only a concern of corporations and government. Individuals are ideal targets for hackers due to the lack of security found on personal PCs and the wealth of financial and personal data usually kept on them.

Protecting yourself from the majority of threats doesn't have to be expensive or all that difficult, as a few software products can reduce the majority of your risk. The essential two to have are anti-virus software, and a good firewall. The various other "privacy suites" and similar products can help, but aren't critical to have.

Of the two necessary software programs, some form of virus protection is the more important. Without one, you could have the best firewall on the market rendered useless due to a virus designed to disable the protection. Whether you choose McAfee, Norton, Panda, or one of the other vendors, anti-virus software's only effective as long as it's kept up to date with the latest virus definitions. Most anti-virus software has options to automatically keep the software current as long as an Internet connection is available.

Firewalls, the other important part of Internet security, are essential if you use a broadband Internet connection such as a cable modem or DSL modem, particularly if you have a static IP address. Those still connecting to the Internet via dial-up modems aren't at as much risk because a new IP address is assigned each time a connection is made, but still can benefit from the security provided by a good software firewall. Not only will the firewall provide a defense against hackers getting into your PC, but most currently available will also provide "stealth" options which provide the highest security possible next to not being connected to the Internet at all.

To clarify the point, most hackers target machines based on "port scanning" using automated tools to send a request to various ports on your machine to learn which are open and vulnerable to attack based on the response sent from your machine. A firewall without the "stealth" ability will respond to the request with a "port closed" message which is good, but alerts the hacker that there's a machine present at that address so other methods can be attempted. However, a firewall such as Zone Alarm, McAfee or Black Ice that's capable of "stealth mode" won't respond to the scan by the hackers at all. Which is very good, because there's no evidence that a machine exists at that IP address as it's entirely unreachable by a hacker.

What about the hundreds of other utilities and privacy suites available, you ask? Most of them really aren't worth the effort or cost of installing them. Just the good anti-virus program and software firewall discussed above will protect you from the majority of threats you'll encounter on the Internet. In fact, the various "privacy guard" programs can actually cause errors with programs and websites by deleting required "cookies" that store settings and data needed by those websites and programs. Likewise, you'll find those that claim you can't be secure on the Internet without a hardware based firewall. Given the cost and difficulty of setting up even a basic router, it isn't recommended for those without a critical need and preferably a good deal of expertise in router configuration and administration.

Yes, the Internet's not the safest of places anymore, which isn't surprising given how accessible it's become. Security isn't something to be dismissed, but it doesn't have to be overcomplicated either. Stick with the two essential components and make "update weekly" your mantra. With that in mind, all the rest tends to take care of itself.

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