New ZoneAlarm toughens firewall

Zone Labs has released new versions of its popular personal firewall products ZoneAlarm Pro 4 and ZoneAlarm Plus, both featuring new components to identify hackers, block e-mail worms, and fine-tune firewall rules.

The Plus version is priced at US$40; the Pro version costs US$50 and adds utilities such as a cookie manager, a pop-up blocker, and a new cache cleaner for Windows and Internet browsers.

More Than a Firewall

Version 4 continues the expansion by Zone Labs into areas beyond the scope of a classic firewall, to take on tasks such as combating viruses and worms.

After the outbreak of the mass-mailing VBS worm Love Letter in May 2000, Zone Labs added a feature called MailSafe to its firewall. MailSafe quarantines incoming e-mail messages that contain VBS attachments. Zone Labs has expanded the feature on its paid Pro and Plus products over the years, and now monitors for 47 file types out of the box.

In Version 4, MailSafe adds the capability to block outgoing e-mail messages that may come from a PC already infected by a mass-mailing worm. Rather than monitoring attachments to messages, however, the outgoing MailSafe feature monitors the way messages are sent.

For example, it alerts you if an application other than your regular e-mail program tries to send mail. This is an important feature, since many of today's worms provide their own SMTP e-mail programs.

The new MailSafe also sets "thresholds" for the regular e-mail program to alert users that a mass-mailing worm may have taken over. In default mode, it blocks an e-mail program from sending a message to more than 50 recipients or from sending more than five separate messages within two seconds.

Users can adjust the thresholds or turn off the feature entirely. "Because a lot of people do use (mass) e-mail lists, you can allow (MailSafe) or stop it. That's your choice," says Frederick Felman, a Zone Labs spokesperson.

New Privacy Features

The new Pro version of ZoneAlarm also includes a cache cleaner to clear out excess files that accumulate in places such as the Windows Recycle Bin and Internet browser caches. Felman says this feature is mainly to improve system performance, but it is also a privacy feature for people who share a PC and do not want others to be able to access items such a list of Web pages they have viewed.

The cache cleaner can also help users manage Internet cookies by enabling them to delete all cookies or choose to retain certain ones. You may wish to allow cookies that let Web sites recognize you, so you don't have to provide a user name and password for every visit.

The cache cleaner supports Microsoft's Internet Explorer and MSN Explorer browsers, as well as Netscape, and should also work with Mozilla, according to Zone Labs.

ZoneAlarm Plus and Pro 4 also improve the core firewall technology, to guard against attacks that hackers and virus writers may attempt in the future.

"Most of these are theoretical exploits--our digging around in the operating system and finding ways that hackers might try to exploit the way applications talk to one another," Felman says.

User Options

The updates also provide more ways for advanced users to fine-tune firewall rules. Now, you can control the ports and protocols that applications use to access a network, specify the systems or networks that programs can communicate with, and even designate the time of day when permissions are granted.

"Most consumers don't want to do that. They prefer a set-and-forget approach," says Te Smith, another Zone Labs spokesperson. "This is a type of feature that more advanced users have requested. They really want to get into the nitty gritty." The new capabilities also let network administrators push out sophisticated rules to multiple PCs using Zone Labs' Integrity management software. The company will update Integrity to support Version 4 in July, Felman says.

ZoneAlarm users can even catch hackers, thanks to the program's enhanced tracing feature. The previous version let users anonymously track down possible hackers by routing a trace request through Zone Labs' servers. In Version 4, users can elect to forward a report, via Zone Labs, to myNetWatchman, a company that collects and aggregates complaints and forwards them to the suspected hacker's ISP.

Finally, ZoneAlarm Pro 4 improves the firewall's capability to function with Virtual Private Network connections often used by telecommuters and remote workers to access company networks. The previous version worked with VPNs, but Version 4 makes setup easier by automatically detecting a VPN and making the necessary configurations, says Smith.

Free Release to Come?

Smith says Zone Labs will continue its practice of offering a simpler, free version of its firewall for home users, and will update its core firewall with the Version 4 improvements.

"Whenever we update our code base, we do make those updates available" in the freeware product, Smith says. "We have no plans to announce a new version of (the free) ZoneAlarm," she adds.

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