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Burglar bars
for your PC

I took my first computer course almost thirty years ago. We used IBM punch cards to input data into the 360's. Try running Fortran with this system! For all the progress in speed, they are still too darned hard to use! You can e-mail me at: arben2@swbell.net

At the ITEC Convention last year, while working the Alamo PC booth, I was asked many questions about security the Internet. I am not an expert on the 'net by any measurement, but I have some items, based on those questions, that our members may find useful. I thought that if attendees at ITEC were unaware of these applications, it is likely that some of you also have never heard of them. 

Following are some tools that provide download assistance, and security. I will not do a review, but will provide information for you to decide whether or not to try them out. The first two are used to encrypt (scramble) data so only you and selected others can read it. Both are based on PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). The third and fourth are from the same company and are a desktop security app, and a PC firewall (sort of a burglar bar for your PC). Fifth and sixth are also firewalls from two different companies. The seventh and eighth are an anti_virus and a combo filter/firewall from the same company as the PGP mail application, McaFee. Ninth is a download helper that might prevent having to start a download over after a crash or disconnect. Next is a location you can visit to test your system to find out how insecure your machine is. Eleventh is a set of computer tests used by the industry for comparisons of computers and hardware. Last is a tool to have some fun with. 

PGP is one of the best applications for encryption of your data, as it is extremely difficult to crack. Calling it unbreakable is like calling something fireproof; anything will burn if you get it hot enough. PGP uses a system referred to as "public_private keys". The public key encrypts or locks the data, and the private key unencrypts or unlocks it. You create both, keep the private key, and give the public key to anyone you want to exchange data with. Others use your public key to encrypt data they want only you to see. Only your private key will unlock it. Even the person who encrypted the data cannot unlock it once your public key locks it. You use others public keys to encrypt data for them. There are depositories on the 'net that hold many public keys, many for highly public figures, and you can place your public key there. You can even use PGP to encrypt the data on your hard drive(s), as well as floppies, zips, etc. Why would you want to do this? If you do taxes, checking, home inventories, insurance, stock transactions, online banking, etc., you have information thieves highly value. Now that the price of computers has dropped so much, the information on your machines is far more valuable to thieves than the machine! They steal computers just for this data. You want to make it as difficult to steal and use as possible, just as you do your car or household goods. By making it more trouble to steal your car than the neighbors car, they steal from your neighbors.  Sounds cruel, but "Life is hard...then you die". Encrypting will  not prevent theft, but will render useless the information contained inside. The only problem (annoyance) with PGP is the bottom feeder's in Washington, and their insatiable appetite for invading your privacy. The "clipper chip" is not yet a reality, but it is indicative of  Washington's intent. To harass as much as possible, they have declared PGP a "munition" and lumped it in to the same category as the neutron warhead, making it illegal to export PGP. Since you are going to use it to encrypt your data, and not export it, it is perfectly legal to obtain and use. You do however, have to jump through some hoops to get it. PGP can be obtained from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for FREE. http://bs.mit.edu:8001/pgp_form.html   Log on to this address and follow instructions. You answer some simple questions and give your e_mail address. A code key is e_mailed to you which you use to unlock a download to your computer. Sounds complicated, but is easy. Installing and setting up PGP is easy, so do not be intimidated! 

The second is a companion to PGP, as it uses PGP. It is PGP Enclyptor from Network Associates (McAfee Antivirus). This encrypts your e_mail and performs other goodies, and does it from a commercial application format. It can be set up to act with your browser, and is somewhat easier to use for this simple purpose than PGP itself. I downloaded a free version of it, and I think it is still available. If it is not, the full version is only $29.95. Enclyptor has a more limited use than PGP, and is easier to use. Remember, an e_mail is an electronic postcard; it potentially can be read by millions. You can download a trial version for free from Mcafee.  If the active server page locks you out, try <www.mcafee.com/downloads> and follow the bouncing ball. You might also try <http://www.pgp.com> and see if it is still active, and has the free version of enclyptor available. 

Next up are the desktop security application and a firewall. I will only describe the firewall, as I have yet to properly set up the desktop app. Both are from the same company, Signal 9. A firewall is used to controll access to your computer by allowing you to set conditions and circumstances under which access is granted. You control who is allowed in, and what is accessible. Usually, firewalls are complex and expensive, as they are designed for networks or servers, not a PC. There is one that works great on  a PC, is cheap, and relatively easy to install and set up. It is called Conseal PC. It operates in conjunction with your browser to protect you from Internet hackers. It is easy to install, and comes preset with enough protection to get you started. As you learn more about it, you can customize it to suit your needs. As soon as I installed it, I tried it out. After I dialed up my ISP and connected, I got a pop up message on the lower right corner of my browser telling me xxx.xx.x.xxx was trying to connect to my machine. It provided several options, and I chose to block it during this session. My connection promptly severed. It was my ISP. I told Conseal to block out my Internet Service! Duh. After resetting, I tried again. I was surprised at the number of uninvited and unknown computers trying to access my machine. I set up a log file to track the attempts without bothering me while I was online. The log was very large. I had no idea there were so many attempts to access my machine. You expect this for the Pentagon, CIA, NASA, IBM, or other prominant operations, but not a PC. Weird! Get this tool. Both Conseal PC and Private desktop are $49.95 each, but you can download both free and try them for 30 days to see if they are right for you. <http://www.signal9.com>. 

NetworkIce has several products, but I will only cover the one called BlackIce. It is another firewall. Why try so many firewalls? These are complex applications, and one right for me is inappropriate for you. While all do the same basic thing (help keep out unwanted guests), the way they work varies, and setups run from fairly easy to Excedrin number 9's! BlackIce has received good reviews, but is not available as a trial (at least as I write this). It can be checked out at <www.networkice.com>. 

The next firewall is free. I mean free, not just as a download. It is called Zonealarm. It can be downloaded and used for no charge, as long as it is used for your personal computer. It may not be used for commercial machines. Zonealarm might be the easiest to set up of all those I have mentioned. Read about and download it from <www.zonelabs.com>. 

McAfee antivirus is my chosen antivirus application. Whichever antivirus program you prefer, get one and use it! Here is a tip: the old "one is good_two is better", does not apply to these applications. With the new scan engines, they tend to see the other antivirus application as an invading virus. Just get one good program, properly install and set it up. Keep the data files updated, and change the scan engine each year. Virus creators use the same scan engines for creating new viruses to bypass your protection, so when a new engine is released, get it. Mcafee also has the combo filter/firewall application, Guard Dog. Cybermedia gave a presentation to Alamo PC about two years ago, and I purchased this product. It has an included antivirus, cookie filter, an eraser for after a day of surfing, a blocker to protect an unauthorized entry, and protection for Windows passwords. It works really well. Download trial versions from Mcafee at <www.mcafee.com>. 

If you have ever had a crash or disconnect (who hasn't) while downloading, and had to start from scratch, I have a goodie for you. It is called Getright. It works with your browser, or can be used by itself. After installation, it  automatically begins downloading when you select a file. It replaces the browser download function, and if you have a malfunction, picks up where you left off (if the server permits it). If you need to halt a download, it has a pause function, and allows a resumption later (again if the server allows it). Some servers will not permit resumptions. You get it all now, or start over. Fortunately, most allow it, and this tool should be in your kit. I once attempted to download a file approximately 89MB in size, and Windows crashed at the 82MB level! @!*^%&3! I have since used Getright to assist large file downloads to test it, and sure enough, after Windows crashed, it picked up where Mr. Bill's cash cow failed. Getright is very customizable, filled with features, is easy to set up, and is inexpensive. It sells for $17.50, but you can download a trial version for free from: <http://www.getright.com>. 

Steve Gibson is the author of Spinrite, a drive rescue tool. He also has written other applications, and consults with the computer industry. Normally, I am hesitant to recommend something like this. If someone asks me "What do you think about the F150 4x4? I am thinking about buying one". If I know something bad, I'll say so. If they pull up in the drive and ask "What do you think of my new F150 4x4"? "Nice truck". Anyway, Gibson has a web site you can go to to test your machine for security holes. He is reputable, and his site is legitimate. You may be surprised at the results. Go to <www.grc.com> He also has freebies for download. 

This one is a little different. It has nothing to do with security or the 'net. I know many of you have read tests of computers and hardware in the various computer publications. They are quoted in winmarks, or winspecs. These are from a set of tests from Zif Davis Publishing, and have become sort of the industry standard. These series of tests were created to give a standard test for all machines. What had been used were tests created by the equipment manufacturers themselves. This led to slanted results, due to the tests being designed to show their own product giving the best results. ZD assembled the most popular word processors, spreadsheets, databases, presentation apps, etc., with the cooperation of the respective publishers, and wrote a series of tests using them. This way when a machine is tested, the results can be directly compared to any other machine. They test every part of the machine, and are very thorough. Note that these tests are performance tests, and not for diagnostics for problems. If you want your own set, the same as the industry uses, ZD will sell them to you for the cost of the CD's and shipping. The last time I checked, the CD's were $5 each, and there are two or three of them for all the tests. Read about them at: <http://www.zdnet.com/zdbop/regform.html>. If you want to try some of them, you can download some of the materials for free. 

The last one is used to locate where intrusions are coming from. It is not foolproof, as some of the intruders are, unfortunately, really good at covering their tracks. Most intruders are people with too much free time, and don't mean any real harm. These are the one you can track. Neotrace can be used to help do this. Tracking a break_in to the person's address can scare them well enough to really upset their laundry lady! She will wear out her rock getting the stains out. You can download a trial version from <www.neotrace.com>. 

Please note that all the above are full versions, not limited, or de_contented. They have time limiting code that allows a full test for a specific time. At the conclusion of that trial period, you must buy them to continue use. They are all relatively easy to install and use. I think you will be shocked at what you find out about the number and frequency of probings in your computers. I am getting ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line) installed seven days from the date I am writing this. With high speed, 24/7 connections like ADSL and cable modems, the problems multiply, especially for cable modems, as they use a shared line. Do yourself a favor, and take a look at some or all of these applications.

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