Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

Cheap products protect data from Internet snoops

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #667  August 6-12, 2002 High Tech Office  column

Two weeks ago, I noted that leaving your computer wide open on the Internet is akin to leaving an unlocked door in my East Vancouver neighborhood. In both cases, expect to find strangers poking around to see what they can find.

Like a lock on your door, your computer’s first line of defense is a firewall: hardware or software designed to watch Internet packets and keep uninvited strangers out. Unfortunately, even with the digital front door locked by a firewall, software inadvertently installed on your computer may be opening the front window and putting out a ladder, leaving hardware routers and firewalls or Windows XP’s built-in software unable to block these invited guests.

A new generation of software firewalls, such as ZoneAlarm (free for personal use, $60 and $75 for enhanced Plus and Pro versions: and Symantec’s Norton Personal Firewall or Internet Security ($77 to $154, one of the few products with both Windows and Mac versions), can help at both keeping the front door locked and keeping the metaphorical windows shut tight; these products check both the Internet traffic coming into your computer and the signals going out, telling you when your computer is trying to connect to the Net without your knowledge.

Others of this ilk worth checking: Tiny Personal Firewall ($60, Sygate Personal Firewall ($30:; both Tiny and Sygate are free for personal use) and McAfee Personal Firewall ($60).

All work in similar fashion and require some user intervention at first. They scan your system, searching for applications that can call out on the Net, presenting a list for your approval. Be prepared to be surprised both by programs that you have never heard of and at programs that are Net-enabled. Why, for example, does Microsoft Word need to phone home?

Afterwards, the first time a piece of software on your computer tries to call out, you’ll be advised, and asked to either give that program approval to do what it wants, allow it to connect just this time, or cut off its Internet privileges entirely. This can be a pain for the first day or two after you install your firewall software, as you give blanket approval to your browser, e-mail program, and the like, but a few days it should settle down.

As well, the default settings on some of these programs notify you every time a stranger rattles the locked front door to check whether your computer is vulnerable. It’s surprising to see how often this can happen (several times an hour in my case), and comforting to get a sense of the firewall at work, but all these interruptions get tedious fast. Luckily, it’s easy to turn the notifications off, leaving the firewall to maintain a log behind the scenes. You may also need some to fiddle with the firewall’s settings to allow access across a local area network while locking out Internet outsiders.

The products listed all provide good basic protection, and any of the free trio will be fine for personal use. Beyond that, it’s worth looking at the extended features. Symantec’s Norton Internet Security comes in Basic and Professional editions, for example. Both include the firewall and a copy of Norton Antivirus (my preferred choice), along with a Privacy Control feature to make it more difficult for specified personal information (like credit card numbers) to be transmitted from your computer without your consent. The basic package also includes a Parental Control feature, letting parents block types of Internet sites or activities that their children can take part in.

The more expensive Pro edition drops the parental controls, replacing them with more workplace-focused Productivity Control, which similarly limits how workplace computers can access the Net.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan