Bullet-proof your PC with a software firewall

A firewall is an absolutely necessary tool in every computer user’s defensive arsenal, along with an antivirus utility. Firewalls are programs (sometimes hardware devices) that are designed to protect you and your system from the legions of hackers, crackers, and other evil-doers who probe the Internet for unprotected PCs. Once they’re in, these invaders can obtain private information or take over your computer for nefarious uses.

The problem is particularly acute if you have a full-time cable or DSL connection: both types of connection use a limited and well-known range of Internet addresses that can be continually poked and prodded. (During a recent 24-hour period, we logged 463 intrusion attempts on a PC connected to a cable modem.) But dial-up Web users aren’t immune, either.

Windows XP has a basic built-in software firewall (see Step 1) but, for more robust protection, you should opt for a commercial package. Companies like Sygate (http://smb.sygate.com/buy/download_buy.htm) and Zone Labs (www.zonelabs.com) offer both free and paid versions (the latter have extra features). Other vendors, such as McAfee and Symantec, offer only paid versions. Zone Labs’ free version of ZoneAlarm is for personal use.

Although firewalls differ, they share key features. We’ve come up with a list of the common steps and settings necessary to put your PC on high alert. The examples here are from Symantec’s Norton Personal Firewall and Zone Labs’ ZoneAlarm Pro. The exact steps for other packages will vary, so read your software’s manual and online help carefully.

1. Turn off the built-in firewall (Windows XP users only). Both XP Home and XP Professional include a bare-bones implementation called Internet Connection Firewall. We recommend using a third-party package instead — which means you should turn off XP’s ICF.

Select Start, right-click My Network Places, and choose Properties. Right-click the connection you want to protect (LAN or High-Speed Internet for a broadband connection; Dial-Up for a standard modem connection), and choose Properties. Click the Advanced tab, uncheck the Internet Connection Fire­wall check box, and click OK to turn off the built-in firewall.

2. Install and activate your firewall. Follow the vendor’s directions. Confirm that the firewall is activated and starts automatically when you turn on your PC. Most place a status indicator or an icon in your system tray at the bottom-right corner of your screen.

3. Turn on automatic updating. New varieties of Internet attacks appear regularly; it’s crucial that you set your firewall to check for updates automatically so that you’ll be immediately protected.

4. Set the security level. Firewalls have multiple levels of protection; we suggest you use the highest for peace of mind, though that may mean some tinkering to get file-sharing applications or online multiplayer games to run properly.

5. Enable Program Control. Your firewall needs to know which programs are allowed to access the Internet. Although you can set permissions manually, using the ‘automatic’ or ‘learning’ modes is easier. As unrecognised programs access the Net for the first time, you’ll be asked if you trust them.

6. Establish a Trusted Zone. You’ll want maximum security for your Internet connection, but perhaps greater freedom on your local network. To allow this, set up a Trusted Zone with a lower security level for PCs on your home or office network.

7. Choose the alerting level. All fire­walls will alert you when intru-sion attempts and even routine port scans occur, but you may not want to see alerts for innocuous events.

Choose how severe the intrusion attempt should be be­fore you are informed.

8. Set up special features. Most fire­walls offer extra functions such as e-mail virus protection, cookie con­trol, or ad blocking.

If you want to use them, make sure they’re en­abled.

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