Windows guru Brian Livingston’s latest newsletter on the sorry state of PC security in the Internet age is a wakeup call. The vast majority us connected to the Internet at home may think we have safeguarded our PCs. But while we may have the front door of our computer locked it is likely our back door is still open. In addition ghouls and other ghastly things are trying to come through the windows. And when we do open the door it is likely that thieves are slipping right past us unseen.
Here’s what we are doing at our house. First we have a cable modem that is always on. All the PCs in the house have the free version of ZoneAlarm installed. It traps (we believe) unauthorized incoming and outgoing Internet traffic embedded in TCP/IP packets. We have a laptop with a wireless card in it connected to our wireless router. All wireless conversation is encrypted and traffic is limited to a few IP addresses. All PCs are running McAfee AntiVirus, which is configured to check daily for updated virus patterns. My wife is smart enough to also know about spy-ware, so she regularly checks our PCs with the free version of Ad-Aware. All of us except my daughter avoid Internet Explorer, preferring Mozilla Firefox for our web browsing. My wife, who works on a help desk, regularly installs the latest patches to our operating systems and key programs. In addition my wife and I have enabled the spam filter on the Cox mail server. But because it is not perfect I also run ChoiceMail whitelist software to further reduce spam. My antivirus program does an automatic weekly virus check of all the files on my hard disk. By most measures we are on the cutting edge of home PC security.
But we are not doing enough. Brian Livingston says we need a hardware firewall in addition to software firewalls on all our PCs. And we need to buy antispam software that we don’t have. Meanwhile we continue to let my daughter violate security rules because, well, we must be spineless morons for parents. You see she must use Internet Explorer because all her friends are using MSN Messenger and it is tied intricately to IE. My wife doesn’t have the heart to take away her administrator privileges so she keeps downloading crap over and over again although we keep telling her not to. A frequently find on her machine is that obnoxious spyware Gator, among others.
All this security is a hassle for us. Yet I doubt most other families are doing half what we are doing. My father, for example, is running Windows Me over a dialup connection to MSN. His antivirus software expired and he couldn’t figure out how to renew it. When my wife ran Ad-Aware on his PC she found it was clogged with crap he never knew he had. We still can’t say if he is virus free because we are having a problem getting McAfee to work on Windows Me.
Enough. It’s time industry came up with a solution. We need a home Internet security appliance, perhaps integrated into our cable and DSL modem. This should be a smart machine that will take care of a whole family’s security needs. To get rid of spam it should have Brightmail antispam server software embedded in the appliance. Brightmail is the only solution out there that really works as a blacklist. With Brightmail integration it should catch virtually all the spam. But this appliance should also catch viruses, Trojan horses, mallware, prevent phishing attacks and kill all ad-ware automatically and transparently.
But it should do more than that. It should constantly keep our PCs tuned with the latest well tested software patches. It’s clear that Microsoft cannot be trusted, so appliance vendors will have to act as a testing clearinghouse for us. This appliance should talk with software installed on our machines to take care of the numerous chores we now have to do manually. For example it could keep us updated on the latest versions of our installed software, optimizing our hard disks and let us know if components appear to be failing. Ideally these appliances would be certified by an impartial government agency, or meet the current FIPS standards.
I hope there are companies working on such appliances. All the antivirus vendors should be doing this as a survival strategy. It would be an easy sell and it would be easy revenue stream for them by marketing a yearly subscription service. I know I would be in the market for such a unit. Why have a PC attached to the Internet if it becomes more hassle than fun?