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Go for the suite spot. If you run a small business, you need antivirus, firewall and anti-spyware software to keep safe from most PC security threats. While some expert users manage to run products from different vendors, the applications may not play nicely together. They may even cause your system to crash.

Applications dovetail smoothly in security suites. They give a single interface to control everything. What’s more, suites are cheaper than the sum of their components. You may need to find separate spam filtering, anti-phishing and adware software.

Check the PC security extras

Many security suites go beyond the basics offering features like parental controls, spam filtering and tools to stop private information like passwords, account details or telephone numbers from being transmitted.

Don’t double up

It’s tempting to think that running two firewalls or antivirus programs will make your system safer – it won’t. Overlapping security tools create havoc, slowing your computer and making it hard to troubleshoot problems. Stick with one of everything, it’ll be safer not to mention cheaper.

Watch the calendar

Commercial security software products often come as one or more applications coupled with links to automatic updates. Typically when you buy the product one year’s worth of updates come as part of the deal. When the year is up you pay a fee to get a further updates.

That’s convenient, but typically the cost of an extra year’s subscription is the same as new applications. As security vendors constantly update technology and add more features – buying a fresh product is the better option. What’s more, avoiding the subscription gives you an opportunity to avoid lock-in and move to a rival company’s offering.

Also, watch out for arrangements where a security software company takes your credit card details and automatically invoices for updates. They try to tell you this is a service to make life easier for you. They do it because they make a lot more money that way.

Home and small business users may meet these computer security threats:

fake security threats
Computer virus spreads to humans: yeah right
  • Malware: A generic name for all malicious software. Some people include greyware which is software that’s annoying and not dangerous.
  • Virus: A small program designed to automatically copy itself from one computer to another. Viruses attach to other pieces of software or hidden inside images, games and music files. They usually travel from machine to machine by email, instant messaging or file transfers. Although some viruses are harmless, most are disruptive, the worst can stop a PC from working.
  • Worm: Also a self-replicating program, but unlike viruses, worms can automatically travel from machine to machine without being attached to other pieces of software. This means in addition to any other damage they slow networks because they can consume bandwidth.
  • Trojan: The name given to a program which looks harmless, but has an unexpected malicious purpose. Some start their mischief immediately, others may lurk for a time, possibly collecting data without the computer owner’s knowledge.
  • Spyware: A program designed to collect information about a computer and its user that the spyware author can use to make money. Typically spyware may watch your web browsing and target pop-up advertising at you or divert you to other websites.
  • Rootkit: A program designed to change a computer’s operating system to hide the behaviour of other malware.
  • Keylogger: Software that collects keyboard input – possibly to collect passwords or important account information. Keyloggers send this information back to criminals allowing them to impersonate users and rob their online banking accounts or do other mischief.
  • Botnet: Programs used to control, update or trigger activity in previously infected systems.
  • Backdoor: A way of getting undetected access to a computer system.
  • Zombie: A computer controlled by another user to do malicious tasks online.
  • Spam: Unwanted email, instant messages or another form of electronic communication. Spam clogs email in-boxes and the sheer volume of spam (as much as 95% of all email traffic) slows networks.
  • Phishing: is when someone fraudulently tries to get hold of important information such as passwords and bank account details by pretending to be a trustworthy source. Phishers may send authentic-looking emails asking for the data or with links to a fake website.
  • Adware: Strictly speaking this isn’t a security threat, but an annoyance. It refers to any software that bombards you with unwanted advertising.

The question isn’t whether the virus-writers, phishers, spam merchants and other online nuisances are targeting your PC, money and privacy. The question is how successful will they be.

Your computer and data could be vulnerable from the moment you hit the on button. Threats multiply when you go online. While there’s no sure way to make your system safe, there’s plenty you can do to minimise risks.

Computer security

The risks are real. At the less worrying end of the spectrum, neighbours might hop on your wireless router and surf the web on your ISP account or pranksters may load your PC with troublesome viruses.

There are people, including some seemingly respectable companies, who want to spy on your online activities.

More seriously, crooks want to control your computer so they can suck money from your bank accounts.

Others want to hijack your machine so they carry out their crimes or even terrorist acts at arm’s length leaving a trail that investigators may track to your front door.

Getting Started

It sounds scary, but a whole industry has evolved to help keep you safe. These days you need a variety of tools to fight a complex range of security threats (see the next post: Computer security: what are the main threats).

You should consider antivirus, a firewall and anti-spyware tools.

This may sound complicated and expensive, but all-in-one security suites make life easier and help you sleep at night. There are free security suites, some are as good as paid for versions. However, if you pay, you’ll get support.

Suites are particularly helpful if you’re not a security expert because the separate tools in security suites should interact smoothly with each other and offer overlapping protection from today’s nastiest threats which can use a blend of techniques to probe your defences.

At the end of the 1990s, Linux looked like it could challenge Microsoft Windows as an alternative for everyday PC users. Linux has come a long way since then. And Microsoft scored an own goal with the confusing, incomplete and often annoying Windows Vista.

Yet desktop Linux failed to break out beyond a hard-core following of geeky devotees. Windows now faces bigger threats than Linux.

Meanwhile, Linux struggles to gain traction.

When desktop Linux was news

A decade ago I wrote for Australian Linux Today. At its peak, my posts would be read by tens of thousands and attract hundreds of comments. Being slashdotted was addictive.

Apart from the odd loon, most discussion was informed and intelligent. Internet.com couldn’t make Linux Today pay, at least not in Australia. The parent Linux Today site lives on under the Jupitermedia banner.

The problem with a free operating system

The demise of the Australian Linux Today site was part of the broader problem with Linux and its inability to reach a wider audience. We had bankable traffic, but nobody in the Linux business bought advertising.

That’s because nobody in the Linux business has a marketing budget. That’s because hardly anyone in the Linux business makes money. Which in turn is down to the fact that Linux is given away.

This meant there was no profit to support the kind of thriving media community that follows Microsoft Windows.

There’s not much today either. More to the point, there’s not even the money to fund the kind of activity that underpins planet Google, mobile computing and the world of Web 2.0 websites-cum-services-cum-applications that now threaten to outflank Windows.

Irony of desktop Linux economics

Ironically, Linux or something similar, underpins most Microsoft challengers. And Vista’s annoyances aside the threat of desktop Linux and open source did much to prod Microsoft into improving its act. Today the company and its products are massively improved.

Today’s Linux distributions are excellent. There’s not much in Vista that the latest version of Ubuntu, 8.10 fails to offer. Kubuntu is possibly better. Fedora is less consumer-friendly, nevertheless a plausible option.

Companies and people freely give their own time and energy to open source projects. That’s great. Long may that continue.

Linux users work at the frontier and continue to pioneer new ideas and technologies that will permeate into the mainstream. But I can’t see Linux ever climbing out of its geeky gravity well and being mainstream. That day has passed.

Linux may find its way under the bonnet (hood if you’re American) of mainstream technologies, it will never be the face of day-to-day computing.

Open source software is free.

Anyone can download an open source program. You can run it, copy it and pass it on to friends and colleagues. You can look at the code and see how the developers made the program. None of this means paying a license fee. It doesn’t break any laws. You have permission to do all these things.

Money, or cost, is not the most important point. Advocates think of word free as in ‘free speech’, not ‘no payment’.

Freedom means that users can change the programs to suit their own needs. That would be illegal with most other forms of software.

Open Source freedom means responsibility

There is a restriction: you must, in turn, pass the same set of freedoms on to everyone else. Altered open source programs must be made available to everyone.

This approach decentralises control. In turn, that means developers continually improve the software.

At the same time, having large numbers of people looking at and improving on programs means that bugs are quickly eliminated. That improves quality control.

Many important programs and applications are based on free software. It runs the internet and underpins some of the most popular operating systems.