making Internet security a Windows priority
by Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business
31-September 6, 2004; issue 775
High Tech Office
The words Windows and security in the same sentence? OK, stop laughing.
Windows XP Service Pack 2 (aka SP2) is the biggest (in several senses)
result of Microsoft's conversion to the gospel of increasing security
rather than adding additional features.
At this moment, SP2 might be busily downloading and installing itself
automatically onto your computer, at least if you're running Windows XP
and have the automatic updating option turned on. Alternatively, you
can download it manually at http://www.microsoft.com/technet/prodtechnol/winxppro/maintain/winxpsp2.mspx
(Be sure to pick the option to "deploy on multiple computers" even if
you only have a single system.)
SP2 is big: the full download, useful if you have multiple systems,
weighs in at 266 MB. If you are more or less up to date on security
patches, your system may require less, perhaps a mere 80 MB or so.
Don't expect new multimedia bells or whistles; Microsoft has a new
Windows version under development. Code-named Longhorn, it won't be
available any time soon.
Instead, after installing SP2 and restarting, you'll be asked whether
you want Windows to automatically download and install all future
updates. Microsoft really wants this. Windows users have been hit with
security attacks such as last summer's Blaster worm, which infected
some 95 million PCs even though a patch that would have prevented it
was available via the Windows Update site.
Next, you're presented with the new Windows Security Center, which
notes whether you're running an up-to-date firewall and antivirus
program. The latest versions of most popular third-party security
programs are recognized, though its listings might not be accurate if
you're running older versions. If it doesn't see a firewall that it
knows about, it automatically turns on Win XP's built-in firewall.
While this is a useful feature, you'll get better protection from most
third-party firewall programs. I use the free Zone Alarm (www.zonelabs.com
SP2's Internet Explorer includes a host of new security options with
(finally!) more secure settings chosen by default. This should make it
harder for some hacker attacks and spyware to install behind your back.
SP2's Internet Explorer also includes a pop-up-blocking feature, again
turned on by default.
Despite these improvements to IE, consider using an alternative browser
such as the free Mozilla Firefox (www.mozilla.org
Ironically, these more security-conscious browser settings mean that
SP2 users might not be able to access some custom-built corporate Web
applications. As a result, some users and corporate IT departments are
holding back on deployment. Microsoft has even posted a patch to enable
automatic installation of other security patches, while postponing
installation of SP2 for up to six months. (The URL for that is even
longer than the ones posted here; e-mail me if you need it).
Microsoft has done a good job with this one. The company worked hard to
make it compatible with third-party applications. Turning on existing
security features by default will be helpful to Windows XP users. Users
of older versions of Windows should not, however, expect similar
features to show up for their version. And even with the new SP2,
installing antivirus, spyware and other security software, keeping
Windows and other software up to date, and maintaining due caution
online remain necessary for safe computing.
Note: On the same day SP2 was released, I got an e-mail claiming to be
a Microsoft security advisory, asking me to update my system by opening
the attached file. Be warned: Microsoft has never contacted end-users
directly by e-mail. This was another official-looking virus.