You’ve heard the dire warnings: If you don’t seal up your computer tighter than Fort Knox, some nasty virus will attack your hard drive, vaporizing all your scanned documents and downloaded records (or worse — your prized photo of prissy cousin Priscilla taking a nose dive into the macaroni vat last Thanksgiving).
But you’re a genealogist, not a computer geek. An 18th-century Polish parish register you can make sense of; when it comes to security software packaging, you don’t have a prayer. What’s the difference between a plain-vanilla anti-virus program and an Internet security suite? And what the heck is a firewall?
Before you disconnect your modem and swear off all high-risk computer activity (such as actually turning it on), keep reading: Our anti-virus advice will help you slice through the cyberbabble and select the security tools you truly need.
Although viruses get most of the attention, they’re not the only menace to imperil your PC. “Malware” (the term for malicious computer programs) comes in various forms — and understanding the differences can help you protect yourself.
A virus“infects” a computer by latching onto a program or file (such as an e-mail), then spreads as users pass on the tainted file (an e-mail attachment, for instance). Viruses require human intervention to work: They can’t harm your computer until you open or run the infected item. That makes them easier to contain — even if a virus lands on your computer, you can delete it before it does any damage.
Not so for a worm, which is similar to a virus but can copy itself and travel without any help from humans. Heard about “viruses” that send themselves out to everyone in a person’s e-mail address book? Those are technically worms. Trickier still is the Trojan horse, so called because it disguises its true nature by appearing to be a desirable program or file. But unlike its malware cousins, a Trojan horse doesn’t spread or self-replicate. Recently, spyware and adware also have proliferated (see the April 2005 Family Tree Magazine).
The effects of malware can vary from annoying (changing your desktop) to devastating (erasing your hard drive or opening your system to hackers). Worse, Windows — the platform used by 70 percent of the population — is notoriously vulnerable. That is, unless you yank away the welcome mat.
Windows users’ best bet is to buy a security suite (see the box above for options), which provides the following protections:
• Anti-virus software scans your system for infected files — manually or automatically at times you specify — and helps you eradicate any it detects.
• A firewall blocks others from accessing your computer without authorization. The software firewall in a security suite typically protects against common Trojan horses and worms as well as hackers. (If you have broadband or wireless Internet, you also need a hardware firewall — your router probably has one already.)
• Suites also usually provide spam blockers to filter out junk e-mail, privacy controls to limit what Web sites users can surf, and anti-spyware/adware programs.
Getting a security suite is only half the battle: It’s equally important to configure the software properly and keep your definitions current — otherwise, you’ll be susceptible to any new viruses that crop up. Set your software to update at least weekly, and run manual scans whenever a new threat emerges.
Be sure to keep Windows updated, too, since hackers target its security holes. (XP users, if you don’t already have it, download Service Pack 2 from <www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/sp2>. Now.) PC Magazine also advises you to check for chinks in your security armor using the freeware tools at <www.grc.com>; read the magazine’s other recommendations in “Keep Your PC Safe” <pcmag.com/article2/0,1759,1618645,00.asp>.
In the end, your best defense is to be a smart computer user: Download e-mail attachments and anything from the Web with caution. Unless, of course, they’re incriminating pictures of Priscilla.
These security suites got high marks in PC Magazine’s lab tests:
• BitDefender 9 Internet Security
• eTrust Internet Security Suite
• F-Secure Internet Security 2006
• McAfee Internet Security Suite 2006
• Norton Internet Security 2006
• Panda Platinum 2006 Internet Security
• ZoneAlarm Security Suite 6.0