Secure IE offers paranoia-free surfing

Surfing the Internet shouldn't feel like a stroll at 2 a.m. on the shady side of town. But home-page hijackings, suspicious pop-up ads, and an increase in Flash-based marketing ploys are making browser-related distractions a growing concern with surfers.

These anxieties have created a market for all-in-one browser safety solutions designed to protect your computer from security threats and overzealous online marketers. I've been testing the latest update to one of these programs, Secure IE 2003, too see how these applications work.

Secure IE 2003, a US$30 application from Winferno Software, isn't the only IE add-on security product out there, but it's among the best at enhancing IE's security controls and handling ad-blocking and piracy concerns. Competing products include Security Software Solutions Laboratory's Internet Security Pro and Guard IE, available from Downloadatoz.com.

Sure, you can install security utilities like Pop-Up Stopper, or change your security settings on Microsoft's Internet Explorer yourself. But, as these software companies argue, why install four programs when one program will suffice?

Safe Surfing Zone

Secure IE is a stand-alone application that uses the underlying Internet Explorer browser code. The program's design is less curvaceous than IE and opts for a simpler, more business-like look. Other elements of the browser include a tabbed browsing feature that allows you to open several Web pages in one browser window. A file download manager has also been added that lets you pause downloads.

But the key to the Secure IE design is its quick and easy access to security controls. Secure IE's toolbar includes three buttons that allow one-click blocking of pop-up ads generated by Web sites, blocking of those ever-popular multimedia ads that use Macromedia's Flash technology, and a button that restricts Microsoft ActiveX controls from automatically being downloaded through your browser and prevents them from running on your PC.

For many surfers, Microsoft's security tools are hard to find and to understand. Secure IE makes finding them easier with yet another toolbar-based button called Security Advisor. With one click, Security Advisor can automatically "tune up" your browser using Secure IE's recommended security settings (these are almost identical to IE's default security settings). With Microsoft, you have to choose "Tools", "Internet Options", then click the Security tab, select the Internet zone, and move the "Security level" slider to your desired comfort level.

Security Advisor also lets you tweak your browser's security settings yourself. Like Microsoft, Secure IE classifies Web sites as Trusted, Unclassified Internet, or Restricted. All you have to do to classify a site is right-click the globe button on the lower right hand side of the browser and select your preference from the menu.

Secure IE also allows you to create granular rules for each Web site classification. For example, I was able to set up my browser to block cookie files and Java scripts from running on Unclassified Internet Web sites that I don't trust. Alternatively, I set Secure IE to relax my browser standards at Trusted sites like my online bank, which requires my browser to accept cookies and uses ActiveX controls for advanced features.

Test Drive

In my tests, the product worked as advertised. But I found that Secure IE had some drawbacks. It doesn't go far enough to make Web browser security as easy as snapping on your seatbelt when you get in your car.

For example, Secure IE makes it extremely easy to change your browser setting to disable "userdata persistence." But without some sort of explanation of what this function does, most people won't understand what it controls. For the record, userdata persistence is a function of IE that allows XML-based online forms to retain data on your PC, therefore allowing you to revisit a Web-based form that you may have only filled out half way and find your previous data still intact.

Another gripe is the Secure IE's design, which made me feel like I was browsing the Internet through a Word document. Equally disappointing was the fact that pop-up ad blocking worked only with Web sites and didn't block all pop-up ads, in particular missing those generated by adware programs like Kazaa Media Desktop.

Winferno is off to a great start in delivering almost-worry-free browsing. However, using Secure IE is still more complicated than it needs to be. Still, until Microsoft decides to make browser security and privacy easier to control with its browser, Secure IE will remain a valuable IE enhancement.

More information on Secure IE is available at: http://www.secureie.com/

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Tom Spring

PC World
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