Author

William West is the editor of Perspective, a
Sydney-based magazine of news and views for the family. In his free
time he moonlights as a geek specialising in home computing systems for
his wife and three daughters.

The problem


Ten years ago when people first started talking about the “information
superhighway”, no-one could have known just how perilous this
thoroughfare would become. These days you almost need to have a degree
in online security to defend your family from the threats that now
exist on the internet – particularly if you are a user of Microsoft
Windows. The list of protection programs needed to combat net nasties
continues to grow by the day, but the main categories include
anti-virus software, anti-spyware or anti-adware programs that fight
unwanted web advertising and sleuthing, spam blockers that stop
unsolicited email, web filters to block pornographic and other
offensive websites, programs that supervise web-based chat sessions to
prevent children from turning over sensitive details to undesirables,
and firewalls to lock out computer hackers trying to gain access to
your hard drive.

The computer I am using to write
this backgrounder has three programs which download daily updates of
the latest viruses and spyware, a web filter that checks every web page
I try to access, and a firewall that examines every communication
between cyberspace and my PC, whether I know about them or not (and
there is another firewall built it to my network router, just to be
sure). Long ago I moved to an email service which scans all my incoming
mail for viruses and spam. Then there’s the Windows updater that
downloads fixes for the latest security flaws found in my operating
system. To tell the truth, after a decade of researching articles on
the Internet, this correspondent is beginning to become a bit weary of
it all. And when you find yourself spending the better part of a whole
weekend reinstalling and updating operating systems and security
programs on your children’s and wife’s computers, you start to wonder
if it really is worth all the hassle. You even start considering other
operating systems, like the Mac OS X or versions of the PC operating
system, Linux. Those options involve other headaches… but more of that
later.

Anti-virus programs

Let’s begin this
excursion into cyber danger by taking a brief look at some of the
programs now available to combat net nasties. To begin with, the oldest
danger to personal computers, predating even the internet, is the
humble computer virus. Before the net came along people used to pick up
these digital infections from software passed around on floppy disks or
via computer bulletin board services. Apparently one of the main
reasons that computer “crackers” started writing viruses, is that they
wanted to try to undermine the hugely successful Mr Bill Gates and his
Disk Operating System (DOS) which evolved into the many versions of
Windows we have today. This surely must be one of the great ironies of
the digital age, given that today’s security threats have made it
almost obligatory for PC users to keep buying new versions of Windows
with the latest security fixes. Mr Gates is surely laughing all the way
to the bank.

Viruses are simply hidden computer
programs that secretly install themselves on your computer and set
about causing all kinds of havoc, from sending out unsolicited email
messages to disabling your operating system or even destroying all the
files on your hard disk. Many parents are unaware of some of their
other capabilities, which include, as the Be Safe Online
web site warns may include linking the user to a pornographic website
or installing a pornographic picture as a screensaver. To combat
viruses, there are many anti-virus programs available today with many
different features.

The best way to get an idea of
how effective and user friendly each one can be is to read reviews
published by computing magazines or online services like CNet or ZdNet.
The two anti-virus programs that top the lists in most reviews are the
Norton and McAfee anti-virus programs. Both come in standalone
anti-virus programs or in suites that offer other security features as
well. There is a range of prices for both, depending on the features
you need, but you can often find bargain deals on Ebay.

If
you are looking for a low-cost program specifically to protect family
members using home computers, there are even some highly recommended
anti-virus programs that offer free versions for home use. They include
AVG and Avast! You can find download sites by searching services like Download or Tucows
or simply by searching in Google. We have used AVG on our family
computers for the past six months and have had no problems. It installs
easily with a few clicks of the mouse and downloads daily virus updates
automatically.

Spyware

These days, one of
the biggest threats to anyone using the internet regularly is spyware.
Unlike viruses, these programs don’t seek to interfere with the
operation of your computer, but to spy on your online activity,
particularly your online buying habits. They can report information
back to businesses which then seek to interest you in their products or
repeatedly open up advertisements called “pop-ups” on your computer
screen. The impact can range from mild annoyance to making it almost
impossible for you to browse the Web and like the viruses mentioned
early, can sometimes include pornographic images.

As
with anti-virus programs, there are many different anti-spyware
programs available, but partly because spyware is still such a new
phenomenon, none of the programs available seem to pick up all of the
spying programs floating around in cyberspace. Most reviewers recommend
that you choose at least two of the best programs available.
Fortunately, competition is still so fierce in this market that many
programs still come free of charge. For the past six months our home
computers have been running two programs that have received good
reviews, Spybot and Adaware,
without any problems. But if you want to take a look at the latest
reviews of what is available, you can always perform a quick search in
Google or one of the other popular search engines. (This proceedure for
tracking down and downloading software on the internet applies to all
of the software downloads referred to in this backgrounder).

Firewalls

Once
you have locked out viruses and spyware, you should also look at
firewalls. As already indicated, a firewall is a program which prevents
computer “crackers” from invading your computer via your internet
connection. This aspect of internet activity is becoming more crucial
as more people move from “dialup” to “broadband” connections. For
anyone who still hasn’t caught up with broadband yet, it is simply an
umbrella term which refers to all high-speed forms of accessing the
internet.

At present the most common varieties of
broadband are cable access like that offered by cable television
providers and ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line) internet,
which uses your ordinary old copper telephone line for high speed
access. ADSL actually splits your telephone line into two bandwidths,
using one for your phone calls and the other for internet access so
that you can continue to use your phone in the same way without any
interference. One advantage is that you don’t have to make a phone call
every time you want to look something up on the internet. Other types
of broadband include satellite access which is mainly used outside of
major cities and electrical cable access which has already been
successfully trialled but which has not yet been offered for widespread
use.

Whichever form of broadband is used, there is
still a very real security problem: because your computer is online for
very lengthy periods (from days to weeks, or even months at a time) it
is more likely that some enterprising computer cracker will succeed in
gaining access to your hard drive to create mischief of one sort or
another.

This happened to yours truly once years
ago when I first gained full-time internet access. I only realised it
when I accidentally clicked on Network Neighborhood and discovered a
number of computer names with disk drives that contained lots of files
with Chinese names. I am not sure what this particular cracker was up
to (probably just hitching a free ride on my internet access), but the
experience was creepy to say the least.

One
solution to this problem is to purchase a router with a built-in
firewall that prevents anyone from gaining access to your computer
without permission. However, it is also a good idea to have a firewall
on your computer because some programs may not be picked up by the
router’s firewall. Thankfully, many of the latest operating systems,
like Windows XP come with a reasonably effective built-in firewall that
works without you having to go through any complicated configuration
procedures.

For those with older operating systems,
there are a number of software firewalls available at download sites,
including some which are free. One of the most popular is Zone Alarm
which comes in a free version for home use. The only catch is that if
you are sharing your internet connection between several computers on a
home network, the free version will prevent other computers from
communicating with the internet and even with the other computers on
your network. The only solution is to pay for the professional version
of the product.

Web filters

Of all the
threats on the internet, there is probably none that causes more
anxiety for parents than the thought that their children might
accidentally stumble on pornographic web sites. If you needed evidence
that there is a clear and present danger to kids online, the latest
statistics available would certainly provide grounds for concern. The
following figures on children’s exposure to eornography were compiled
by toptenreviews.

  • Average age of first Internet exposure to pornography: 11 years old
  • Largest consumer of internet pornography: 12-17 age group 1
  • 5-17 year olds having multiple hard-core exposures: 80%
  • 8-16 year olds having viewed porn online: 90% (most while doing homework)
  • 7-17 year olds who would freely give out home address: 29% 7-17 year olds who would freely give out email address: 14%
  • Children’s characters linked to thousands of porn links: 26 (including Pokemon and Action Man)

Today
there are scores of web filters available, all promising to protect
your kids while they are online from everything from porn sites to
sites promoting racial hatred and violence. There are so many programs
out there now, the biggest problem for most parents is trying to decide
which one to use. You will be glad to hear that reviewers have found
that most of the top programs have a high rating when it comes to
effectiveness. In fact, one of the main things blurring the lines
between programs is that some are a little over zealous and prevent
access to many innocent sites and documents on the internet.

Many
programs also come with so many controls and functions that configuring
them and keeping up with the many reports they offer you on your
child’s internet activity that managing them could become a very
time-consuming project. Among the most highly rated programs, according
to toptenreviews.com, are Content Protect, Cybersitter, Net Nanny, Cyber Patrol, FilterPak and McAfee Parental Controls
– all of which achieved three out of a possible four stars.
Unfortunately, no program was given a full four stars by reviewers,
indicating that none can be considered as being 100% effective
(although this, again, is partly because they block out too many
innocent web pages).

The leading filtering programs
are priced from $US29.99 to $US49.95. Budget conscious parents will be
pleased to know that the top performing program at present, Content
Protect, is also one of the cheapest at $US29.99. Although most
filtering programs allow you for several users on a single computer,
they can become very costly if you have more than one computer linked
to the internet – something that is becoming more common in families
that have two or more children in high school.

One possible solution is to try out a free web filter. They include We-Blocker, NetPurity and ParentalFilter 0.2.
The first two seem to work fine (we have used We-Blocker for the past
year without any problems). The only obvious weak point would appear to
be that both We-Blocker and NetPurity only work with Internet Explorer.
Any youngster who knows how to install another browser, like Firefox,
could surf the Web free from any restrictions. By contrast,
ParentalFilter 0.2 works with other browsers as well.

Another
solution to the high cost of programs is to purchase a “router” for
your home network. Routers not only act as “hubs” which keep all the
computers on your home network connected together, they can also manage
your internet connection, acting as a firewall and filtering the web
sites that all the computers on your network can access. Routers with
these capabilites at present include Belkin, Linksys and ZyXEL. Another
leading router manufacturer, D-Link, is intending to upgrade its
routers by July 2005 to include a new filtering service (at present the
parental controls in D-Link routers only allow parents to set their own
lists of allowed and banned sites). Probably the most cost effective
filtering service at present is the one offered by Belkin, which comes
with six months’ access to the “Cerberian” filtering service. After that you can subscribe for $US19.99 per year to keep all of your home computers protected.

Changing your operating system

At
this point, many parents may be getting to the stage where they are
tempted to think that the whole thing is just too hard – so many
programs, so many choices and so much time to install and configure
hardware and software. This is particularly true in cases where
families have two, three, or more computers. One avenue that an
increasing number of parents are pursuing is to change to an
alternative operating system that is not plagued by all the security
issues that afflict Microsoft Windows.

Many are
also spurred on by the high cost of software and the fact that
Microsoft now has something approaching a monopoly position in both
desktop operating systems and office software. Some research suggests
that Windows is now installed on as many as 90 per cent of personal
computers. While Apple Mac computers used to account for about 30 per
cent of personal computers, that share is currently running at around 3
per cent.

One bright light on the horizon is the
rise of the Linux operating system. The major barrier for most people
trying out Linux is that it has traditionally been a toy for geeks who
are happy to spend days or even weeks setting up their computers.
Fortunately, there are now a number of user-friendly versions (or
“distributions”) of Linux around that can be installed just as easily,
or even more easily, than Windows. Don’t be put off by the huge number
of Linux “distros” that are available or by the unusual names they go
by. Among the easiest of all are Ubuntu, Suse, Mandrake, Linspire
(formerly known as “Lindows” until Microsoft took legal action), and
Mepis.

But according to most reviewers, and our own tests, the easiest of all is a version known as Xandros.
While some Linux purists may be put off by all the fact that it
contains some commercial “proprietary” software and the fact that it is
clearly designed to look and behave like Windows, you could not find an
easier operating system to install. A free version (the “open
circulation” version) with most of the features of commercial versions
and many types of software not included in Windows, can be downloaded
from www.xandros.com. (The only unusual thing about this process is
that you need to download special software, called BitTorrent,
to do it and you need to burn the downloaded “.iso” file as a “disk
image”. If you are using Nero express to burn your CD, just click on
“Disc Image or Saved Project” and then change the “Files of Type”
dialogue box to “Saved Image”, and then burn the disc as usual.) Once
it has been downloaded and burnt on to a CD, Xandros takes only 10
minutes and a few mouse clicks to install.

In addition to its free programs (including the fully functioning office suite Open Office
(which includes a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation program
that read Microsoft Office formats), a big advantage of Xandros is that
it is immune to the vast majority of viruses and spyware programs that
are floating around on the internet. That means most users will not
need to bother installing three of the security programs that are now
pretty much compulsory for Windows users – that is, a virus checker and
two spyware programs. Xandros also comes with one of the latest and
best browsers available, Firefox, which includes a pop-up blocker – a
security feature that is to date only available to Windows users who
are using the latest version of Windows XP. Xandros also has its own
built-in firewall – again a feature that Windows only includes in its
latest upgrade to XP.

Of course, one security
feature that is still needed by anyone using Xandros is a web filter.
One option is to download and install a free web filtering program
called DansGuardian.
We don’t recommend this though. It can be quite difficult to install
and set up and updating the software to block all the latest offensive
sites on the internet can be very costly. A simpler option is to just
purchase one of the routers mentioned above with built-in web
filtering.

One advantage of Xandros and most other
Linux operating systems is that they come with a “boot loader” which
allows you to have more than one operating system on your computer at
the same time. So you can install Xandros on a computer which is
presently running Windows and have a choice of launching either
operating system when you start up your computer. That way, if you
don’t like Xandros, you can just go back to Windows. There are also
some programs that can be run from within Linux that allow you to run
Windows programs or even install Windows within Linux itself and launch
it in a window. Once launched you can install and run most of your old
Windows programs. Although there are several programs available to do
this, the only one that we could get working satisfactorily is
Netraverse’s Win4Lin
Home program which will install versions of Windows up to Windows 98
Second Edition. It will run most Windows programs, except for many
multimedia programs and games, especially those that rely on
Micrsosoft’s Active X software. There is also a “Professional” version
of Win4Lin which will run Windows 2000 and Windows XP but we found that
it ran far two slowly to be of much use.

But, in
the final analysis, if you still need to run Windows programs, you will
probably be better off sticking with Windows. Many people may also be
put off Xandros because it tends to be a bit sluggish compared with
Windows and it uses poor fonts it uses (they tend to be quite
amateurish and blurry looking). If the fonts problem bothers you, you
could always try the Ubuntu distro of Linux, but sooner or later you
are likely to need some expert help. All in all, you might decide that
Windows with all its security problems is still a better alternative.
Whichever path you decide to go down, it seems certain that the
security headaches that go with online computing are going to be with
us for some time to come.

William West

William West is a Sydney journalist.