Stress-free surfing

The two biggest threats to stress-free surfing are malware and malicious intruders who can gain access to your data or even gain control of your PC. To help you combat these threats, we'll highlight tools that prevent viruses, worms and Trojans. But to keep out hackers, the first thing you need to invest in is a firewall.

Stop playing with fire

Windows XP users have a head start. Microsoft's newest operating system comes with a built-in firewall that, although rather basic, is better than nothing. To enable the ICF (Internet Connection Firewall), go to the My Network Places folder and click on the Network Connections link. Right-click the icon for your ISP, select Properties and choose the Advanced tab. Here you'll see a checkbox to start ICF.

A basic firewall works by monitoring packets coming into your computer. ICF provides protection on this level but your PC may also be vulnerable if a Trojan or insecure application is already installed. As such, dedicated firewalls not only check communication coming into the computer but also monitor attempts by applications to connect to the Internet.

In most cases, this will be fairly innocuous or even necessary - programs checking for updates or receiving data into a browser or chat program. Even if a connection is not being made for malicious purposes, you will be surprised how many applications connect to the Web to transmit information about a system - particularly in the form of spyware.

There are plenty of firewall programs that offer extra control over all aspects of your PC, but our recommended titles are Trend Micro PC-cillin Internet Security 2004 and ZoneLabs ZoneAlarm. If you have an always-on broadband connection (particularly if it is shared across a network), consider investing in a hardware firewall router such as the Linksys Wireless-G Broadband Router WRT54G.

Trojans may be installed on your PC to allow hackers access to your data, but they are more commonly used to exploit vulnerabilities in the Windows OS. As such, you should regularly download software patches from Windows Update.

Protect your privacy

Cookies are text files that are designed to provide information about an Internet browser as it moves from page to page. Not all cookies are bad for you; many offer plenty of useful features such as keeping track of your purchases or remembering your home page preferences. Unfortunately, there is a downside - cookies are often used to track viewers' surfing habits.

1 From version 5.5, Internet Explorer has provided sophisticated controls over cookies. Access the Advanced Privacy Settings dialogue box from Tools-Internet Options and click the Privacy tab. Click here to view a screen shot. From here you can set general levels for all sites or, by clicking the Advanced tab, you can override automatic cookie handling. This will allow you to permit or block first- or third-party cookies.

2 For even more control, click the Edit button in the Web Sites section. From here you can specify whether cookies from individual sites will be accepted or rejected on your computer. Click here to view a screen shot.

No more viruses

Not using antivirus software these days is irresponsible in most cases. If you use Windows and connect to the Internet (even if it is only occasionally to check e-mail), the issue is not if a virus will target you but when it will happen. While 2002 was a quiet year for new viruses, in 2003 we saw some of the worst infections ever, including the SoBig virus and MS Blaster.

Spending extra money on antivirus software is now a necessity. Microsoft used to include antivirus software with old versions of DOS but this low-level protection was probably worse than no protection at all. Users thought they were safe, but any built-in antivirus protection will automatically become obsolete.

Which leads us to the next step regarding protection: it is not enough to install an antivirus scanner. You must keep it up-to-date with downloads and updates. As viruses mutate on a regular basis, the top antivirus manufacturers release new patches weekly or even daily. Recommended products include Trend Micro PC-cillin Internet Security 2004.

If you are determined to spend no money on antivirus software, look to Grisoft's free package in the form of AVG 6.0 Anti-Virus System (www.grisoft.com). Beware, though: this program is not updated as often as commercial apps. Installing software that is not protected against the latest in-the-wild worms and viruses may lead to a false sense of security.

Dealing with viruses requires as much common sense as anything else. Don't click on attachments that you were not expecting to receive and be wary when downloading files from suspect sites. Virus hoaxes can be as big a problem as real infection, particularly when such cons lead you to delete important system files. Stay informed by regularly visiting the Virus Bulletin at www.virusbtn.com.

Script update

Since the invention of HTML in the early 1990s, the capabilities of Web pages have been extended by scripting languages such as JavaScript and VBScript. The problem with scripting languages is that they are also the cause of most irritations such as pop-up windows, and can present potential weaknesses for hackers to exploit.

1 To take control of scripts in Internet Explorer, go to Tools-Internet Options and select the Security tab. Click Custom Level to open the Security Settings dialogue box. Click here to view a screen shot.

2 Scroll towards the bottom of the Settings window to the section under Scripting. You'll see three entries: Active scripting, Allow paste operations via script, and Scripting of Java applets. By default these are usually set to Enable. Select Prompt to prevent such scripts from running automatically in your browser. Click here to view a screen shot.

Spam canners

You have 1743 new messages! Only five, however, are of any relevance - the rest fulfil the time-honoured Internet tradition of promising you more money, more sex and more hair. Many e-mail clients provide some means to block spam, but, to deal with the majority of it, you need anti-spam software.

The number of anti-spam applications available on the market has proliferated almost as much as spam itself. All programs work by blocking messages according to keywords or by maintaining lists of offending addresses.

Applications such as AllSpamGone (www.a1tech.com) use e-mail lists to monitor and block spam. It even goes a little farther and blocks all unknown senders unless they reply with an e-mail to register themselves on a trusted list. This is very effective in cutting out automated bulk mailing (responsible for the vast majority of spam), but it may also block messages that you wish to receive. Some programs such as SpamButcher (www.spambutcher.com) block messages according to keywords.

Finally, don't forget the free tools available in applications such as Outlook Express. Select a message from a sender whose e-mail you no longer wish to receive and go to Message-Block Sender. If you make a mistake or wish to amend your blocked senders list, go to Tools-Message Rules-Blocked Senders List.

Safe surfing for kids

For the average home user, one major trauma of using the Internet is what their children will encounter online. Internet-filtering software is a start, but it should not be the only route taken by concerned parents. Consider keeping an eye on what family members use the PC for and always communicate with them about the potential dangers and difficulties they could encounter.

Internet filtering can be a troublesome topic, and innocent sites can be blocked by over-zealous software. Such filtering takes a range of approaches - at its simplest, it may consist of a log of Net activity. More interventionist applications work by blacklisting sites that display restricted keywords or originate from known IP addresses. Alternatively, the software uses a whitelist to confine surfers to known safe sites.

Of the various products available for monitoring online activity, CyberPatrol (www.cyberpatrol.com) and Net Nanny (www.manac.com.au) are probably the best known apps. Each of these programs can control access via applications such as chat programs and e-mail (using Net Nanny Chat Monitor), as well as restricting access to unsavoury Web sites.

We have concentrated on parental controls here but there are many people who will also want to limit user access at work.

Another solution for worried parents - and one that is harder to bypass than software - is to change to an ISP that uses built-in family controls. At present this means switching to AOL, which has marketed itself as the safest service provider around. Multiple accounts can be set up using one subscription and each can be allotted different parental controls. These can even govern who can use instant-messaging services.

Patch and patch again

It's the most popular operating system on the planet and, as such, Windows is regularly targeted by hackers and virus writers - examples include the SoBig and Blaster viruses. Microsoft releases patches to prevent weaknesses in its OS from being exploited, but you will have to update regularly to ensure your PC is as safe as possible.

1 Click the Windows Update icon in the Start menu. The process for downloading and installing patches can be automated to take place whenever new patches are available. Click here to view a screen shot.

2 Open System from the Control Panel and click Automatic Updates. Check the box that says 'Keep my computer up to date' and select the level of automation you require - in our case, every day at 03:00.Click here to view a screen shot.

Which Browser?

Few people shift between browsers. This is understandable, as it requires learning new tricks and techniques. Also, many sites have been designed with Internet Explorer in mind, meaning that there tend to be fewer compatibility issues when viewing them.

Nonetheless, there remain a few reasons for considering alternatives. Netscape (www.netscape.comwww.mozilla.org), an open source alternative based on Netscape technology, provides a simple, lean browser for free. Firebird (www.mozilla.org/products/firebird) offers an even speedier alternative.

Opera (www.opera.com, $US39) once looked like the IE contender that would replace Netscape, but recent releases have been far too fussy when rendering Web pages for us to recommend it. It does have one advantage over IE: it is the most customisable browser on the market, with a range of skins and themes.

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