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Home of 
Crystal (Bliss) Sloan,
Microsoft MVP
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Home -- Reviews -- Security --- Firewalls

  • update in progress 3/31/2004:  Windows Computer Security Hot Picks 

    Note: this page is generally dated but still may have some useful information. It will be updated as time permits. -- C. Sloan

    Advances in tools for hackers have made attacks on PCs and networks much more common. Now a hacker can sweep even millions of PCs for vulnerabilities.  These days, the likelihood that your PC will be the subject of an attack is very high. Our VP, who has been getting an increased number of attack attempts from the net recently, decided to investigate the latest in firewalls and personal PC/small office network security.  She found one very educational product, plus some very good news: the best firewall security for Windows machines right now is still available free, or at very low cost..  

    Test your PC's security for FREE in minutes
    Test your computer's security by going to the following FREE sites and running these easy tests:

    • "Test My Shields" test and "Probe My Ports" test, both at https://grc.com/x/ne.dll?bh0bkyd2 -- Click on each of the two tests here; these check for vulnerability to external threats.
    • LeakTest  New Version 1.1 (for Windows users only) -- Click to quickly download this tiny file, and choose to save to disk, or run right from the Web site. This checks for vulnerability to internal threats initiated e.g., mail sent from your system by trojans.  Excellent information on this site: "WinXP's built-in firewall does not attempt to manage or restrict outbound connections at all. It appears to be a useful firewall for hiding the machine from the Internet (it has "stealth mode" unsolicited packet handling), but you will still need to use a good third-party personal firewall if you wish to manage and control outbound connections from your system."
    • GRC article with two more easy tests for Windows users relating to Distributed Denial of Service (DDos) attacks. (The two one-line tests are described near the end of the article.)
    • Test your system for viruses FREE with this online virus testing service from ZeroKnowledge Freedom

    Don't be surprised if the above tests find vulnerabilities in your Windows-based PC. Nine out of 10 computers are not properly secured! The good news is that inexpensive (even FREE!) help is out there, a few clicks away.  Read the latest on protecting your computer and network:  

    If you need a firewall that not only protects from outside attacks, but also lets you make sure that no trojan, virus, ad software, or other malicious code on your machine is sending unwanted messages out from your computer, there is good news. There are not one but two FREE excellent firewalls for Windows machines; each handles internal as well as external threats.:  

    Top Pick if you are not using WinRoute or Microsoft Internet Connection Sharing:  Tiny Personal Firewall 2.0.15 (TPF) from TSI is FREE for home users, $39.95 for business users. This gives excellent protection, but may not run on all machines. If it does run on your PC, this can be a very good firewall choice.

    Top pick for for-profit businesses: ZoneAlarm Pro 4.0  Top-rated for some years now, ZoneAlarm gives all the protection that BlackIce does from external attacks, plus defends against internal threats such as a trojan on your system sending email or initiating any other net action.  It won PC Magazine's Editor's Choice award in 11/2003. There were some problems with version 3.0: Although in theory ZoneAlarm Pro 3.0 is compatible with Window 95, 98, Me, NT, and 2000, there were some reported compatibility problems with Microsoft products. See: Cannot Browse the Internet After You Uninstall ZoneAlarm (Q291793), 12/2001, IE 5.5 and 6 are affected; and Invalid Vxd Dynamic Call From Vsdata95 Error Message (Q297725), 1/2002, affects Windows 95, 98, and 98SE. There were even more gripes about version 3.0. ZoneAlarm Pro 4.0 is $49.95 for a single user, but prices go down for 2 or more users. Unless you have a for-profit business and need the paid license,  go with the free version, ZoneAlarm, downloadable from a variety of places online.

    Still Top Pick for now:  ZoneAlarm Pro's free little brother Basic ZoneAlarm has been just fine and is still recommended. ZoneAlarm is compatible with Window 95, 98, Me, NT, 2000, and XP. 

    Top Pick: Freedom 3.2 Internet Privacy Suite (no longer free)
    Freedom 3.2 from ZeroKnowledge is a low-cost suite of privacy tools, including an excellent firewall available separately for $29.95, or with the whole suite for $69.95,  a cookie manager, a form filler, an ad manager (to "control ads and speed up browsing"), and a keyword alert that gives you control over the information leaving your computer. Like ZoneAlarm, Freedom 3.2 gives all the protection that BlackIce does from external attacks, plus defends against internal threats.  Freedom 3.2 also gives you the option of purchasing their WebSecure privacy suite for $49.95. This service works with the standard free services and gives you up to 5 anonymous identities ("nyms") of your choosing, for one year each, enabling untraceable encrypted email and truly anonymous browsing and chat.  Switching between your "true identity" and your nyms is a matter of conveniently choosing your identity from a pick list. Definitely choose Freedom 3.2 over TPF or ZoneAlarm if you want to surf, chat, or email anonymously. Be warned, however, that just using Freedom 3.2 as a firewall may be overkill if you won't also be using their nyms for "absolute privacy." Go with TPF or ZoneAlarm for an easier user interface if you don't need the excellent Freedom 3.2 "Premium Service." Freedom 3.2 is compatible with Window 95, 98, Me, and 2000. -- ZeroKnowledge--get absolute privacy online  

    Top Pick for incoming attack defense (not outbound detection) and for education value: BlackIce Defender personal firewall software from Network Defender ($39.95) and its reporting companion ClearIce ($10 or so, depending on whether you buy it at the same time as BlackIce or not) do a great job of defending your Windows machine against external attacks. BlackIce is a top pick not only for its ease of installation and use and for the excellent security it provides from outside attacks, but also especially for its very interesting educational value.  If you want to learn about hacking--presumably so you can better defend against attacks--in a very short time, you could do a lot worse than get BlackIce and use their help links as directed reading.

    Be warned that BlackIce only defends against incoming attacks. It does not monitor unwanted outgoing messages from your PC. This means that should you catch a trojan or virus that sends unwanted messages from your PC out onto the net (presumably through some failure of your virus protection software and procedures), BlackIce will not stop those unwanted messages, nor let you know they are occurring. Because of this, do not use BlackIce without excellent virus and trojan protection.  UPDATE: Note that recent versions of BlackIce may imply they catch unauthorized outbound traffic; be cautioned that even with this recent BlackIce update you still apparently do not get outbound protection. Read the BlackIce section of the LeakTest page for more details on this.

  • updated 11/4/2001:  Featured Site: Securing Your Windows Network, Version 2! 
    Newly updated, clearly-written, easy-to-follow step-by-step directions from GRC for securing your Window PC and network.  This is the best explanation we have seen yet.  Secure your PC and network in minutes from Internet attacks! -- Securing Your Windows Network, version 2. 
    You might also like to read GRC's timely article about Distributed Denial of Service (DDos) attacks, and try the couple of fast, easy, free tests it gives (near the end) to see whether your machine might be unwittingly participating in attacking others.


About the reviewer: Crystal (Bliss) Sloan has been reviewing books, software, and hardware of interest to her readers on AOL's Computing Channel for the past several years.

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