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    Microsoft takes another stab at fending off Windows security breaches

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2009 First published in Business in Vancouver October 27- Nov 2, 2009 issue #1044

    High Tech Office column

    I'm writing this a week or so prior to the October 22nd release of Microsoft's Windows 7, so I can't say whether that product will be a big hit, jump-starting slow computer hardware sales or whether most users (and most companies) will shrug and continue to use their existing hardware running Windows XP (first released way back in 2001).

    Pre-release beta testers and reviewers have generally been positive, but in retrospect, the same people had generally positive things to say about 2006's Windows Vista – which failed to catch on in any big way. In issue 1036, I suggested that Vista users should find Windows 7 a worthy upgrade, but that XP users will find it too difficult to upgrade their current systems. For those users: wait until it's time to buy a new computer.

    A few weeks prior to the Windows 7 release, however, Microsoft quietly released software that may be more worthwhile for many XP users – as well as many running Vista and even the new Windows 7 – to consider.

    Microsoft Security Essentials is free for home – and (a nice touch): home business – use, promising 'real-time' protection from virus, spyware, rootkits, and other assorted malware. While installing it validates your Windows version, no registration or renewal is required. It's not a trial version and unlike some other free security products there are no attempts to move users on to a paid version with more features.

    Most Windows computers sold to the consumer market include a trial version of antivirus or other security software; often, however, users let the trial period run out without purchasing the full version. The result: millions of vulnerable and unprotected PCs. While some users have opted for one of several free antivirus programs, but often these – unlike Microsoft's new release - offer no protection from spyware and other sorts of infestations, and in some cases lack real-time protection, only checking for infection during scheduled scans.

    Microsoft estimates that between 50-60% of Windows users are running without up to date security protection – these are the users Microsoft hopes will move to Security Essentials.

    Security Essentials is built on the same technology as Microsoft's business-focussed Forefront Client Security, minus that product's network management and reporting features. It does a good job of running quietly behind the scenes, with a minimum of unnecessary pop-ups and nagging. For example, the program keeps itself updated without any fuss, without notifying the user unless a problem arises. Another plus: it uses a relatively low amount of system resources, resulting in minimal impact on computer performance.

    For a free product, Security Essentials does a fairly good job of detection and removal of malware. Microsoft has been releasing new definitions as often as several times a day. Security Essentials uses the company's new Dynamic Signature Services (DSS) feature, which will be included in the next release of its business-level Forefront security product. DSS responds to suspicious behaviours such as unexpected network connections or changes to core system settings and files to deal with malware that is not included in the currently-installed virus definitions.

    My biggest concern: At one time, the company offered an antivirus program as part of MS-DOS; it quickly lost interest, leaving  users who thought they were protected while their security software was no longer being updated. More recently, Microsoft offered and then dropped a free OneCare security product. Hopefully the company will remain interested in Security Essentials for the long term.

    If you're among the 50% without  an up to date license for a paid security suite you should probably check out Microsoft Security Essentials. It can be downloaded from Note the separate downloads for 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Vista or Windows 7 and for Windows XP.

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