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Take Care to Guard Your Windows

Free Firewalls, Patches, Anti-Virus and Anti-Spyware Software Enhance Security

By Brian Krebs
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page F06

For the millions of computer users still running older versions of Microsoft Windows, the latest bundle of security upgrades for Windows XP customers may provide little comfort. But there are plenty of simple steps and free security tools available that do a good job of keeping legacy Windows users safe from hackers, viruses and spyware.

Analysts at the research company IDC say there are still roughly 200 million copies of Windows 2000/NT, ME, 98 and 95 in use, all of which are susceptible in varying degrees to online threats. Regardless of which operating system you use, keeping your computer secure is an ongoing process that requires several layers of protection -- and that goes even for XP users who install SP2. Online security is not a static, set-it-and-forget-it, one-time chore.

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To make that chore as easy as possible, here is an introduction to some of the security tools available online today, as well as tips for keeping those tools current to fend off future threats.

Fight Fire With Firewalls

Firewalls are the bedrock of safe home computing, and you shouldn't go online without one. Windows 2000 and Windows NT systems have built-in firewalls, but setting them up properly requires some technological expertise that is beyond the grasp of many home users. The best option is to leave them alone and download one of several excellent free software firewall products from the Internet.

Many companies offer free firewall software on their Web sites but then try to steer you toward buying versions that contain more bells and whistles. Unless you feel at home configuring advanced networking options (and you're probably not), start with the free version. You can always upgrade later.

Here are links to just a few free firewall products: Zone Labs' Zone Alarm:www.zonelabs.com; Sygate: soho.sygate.com; Outpost Firewall from Agnitum: www.agnitum.com/products/outpost; Kerio: www.kerio.com/us/kpf_home.html.

Setting up a software firewall requires patience. Once it is installed, the program will spend several days periodically interrupting you, asking you to approve or deny requests from various programs on your computer to seek access to the Internet. It also may ask you to make that decision based on what seems like cryptic information at best. You may not realize, for example, that "Spoolsv.exe" is a file that lets your printer communicate with your computer over a network. When in doubt, look up the name at www.liutilities.com/products/wintaskspro/processlibrary. If that doesn't work, try searching on Yahoo, Google or another search engine for the file's name to make sure it's legitimate and not a virus.

If you operate a wireless network in your home or business, it's a good bet that your wireless router came with a hardware-based firewall as well. Hardware firewalls protect computers from Internet-based attacks by masking their Internet addresses. However, they do not prevent viruses and other bad software that may already be on your computer from hijacking your Internet connection, so it is a good idea to use a software firewall all the time.

Patch Madness

After your firewall is installed, make sure your PC contains the latest Windows security fixes. Windows 2000 users should take advantage of the "Automatic Update" feature, which can be configured to notify you of new security patches. It also can download and install updates automatically when Microsoft makes them available. Windows 2000 users can load this option by clicking "Start," "Settings," "Control Panel" and then "Automatic Updates."

For everyone else, there's Microsoft's Windows Update Web site, at windowsupdate.microsoft.com. Visit the site, let it scan your computer and install any patches that it says you need. Some security fixes -- such as service packs -- need to be installed separately and require you to reboot your computer before installing other patches. If you're not sure whether you successfully installed the available patches, revisit the Windows Update site and let it scan your computer again.

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