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Computer Security Software Buying Guide 2010

posted on December 21, 2009 in Computers and Software, Computer Safety & Support, Guides & Reviews, Tech 101 :: 15 comments

computer with keysWe, the computer using public, are in the midst of a seemingly endless war between digital ne'er-do-wells (who wish to infect your computer, steal your data, and generally make your life difficult) and security companies (who do their best to keep on top of the ever-evolving malware scene). Our part in this war is to be vigilant about keeping our own computers and data secure, and that means installing security software. By keeping our own computers safe, we allow one less avenue for viruses and malware to spread to others.

It used to be that installing a commercial security suite was a quick way to turn your brand new PC into a glorified calculator, as it chewed up precious resources. Thankfully, the makers of anti-virus packages have been working hard the last couple of years to lighten the toll on your computer and speed up scans for malware. With the performance issue largely cleared up, there is no excuse left for not protecting your PC. Besides, by keeping your computer secure you reduce your exposure to potentially more expensive troubles, like identity theft.

Security Software Essentials: What You Need

There are three basic components necessary to any comprehensive security setup—anti-virus, firewall, and anti-malware (including spyware).

Anti-virus: Anti-virus software is often the center-piece of any security suite. Good anti-virus software will run regular scans to see if any viruses have loaded themselves on your computer, and they'll provide active protection by checking each and every file as you download or open it. All quality packages will also monitor programs for suspicious behavior in order to block potential threats, even those that have yet to been confirmed as viruses.

Firewall: A firewall is a filter that controls the flow of data to and from your PC and the Internet. It is able to block hackers from breaking into your PC and stop rogue programs from reaching out to their creators and handing over your personal information or downloading more malware.

Anti-malware: There are plenty of threats out there that don't fall under the guise of viruses and other infections normally caught by anti-virus software. These invaders, which go by various names including spyware or adware, often need their own dedicated tool to root them out. Unlike viruses, spyware and its companions primarily use your browser as the entry point and are often used to steal passwords and credit card information, or serve up endless streams of annoying pop-up ads. While most security suites include malware protection stand-alone tools, such as Ad-Aware and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, offer excellent protection as well.

Do You Need Security Software if You Own a Mac?

Short answer—yes. While Apple (and its acolytes) like to extol the virtues of living in a virus and spyware free universe thanks to OS X, the truth is Macs aren't invincible. While there are still far fewer threats out there targeting Apple users, they do exist. And as OS X becomes more popular, the amount of malware will grow to prey upon complacent users. No one wants to be a victim of the first major OS X virus outbreak.

Also, many security threats are caused by “phishing” for personal information through email and bogus websites. Security software suites have features that identify potentially dangerous sites before you enter personal information.

Why You Should Use a Non-Administrator (vs. Administrator) Account

One of the things that made using Windows XP so dangerous was that by default all users were administrators, meaning they had unfettered access to the operating system’s most sensitive parts. That meant any malware you stumbled across also had the same permissions. While you could easily change accounts to be "restricted," this mode was practically useless for doing anything besides creating office documents and browsing the Web.

Windows Vista and Windows 7, on the other hand, create all new user accounts as "normal" users instead of administrators. Unlike the restricted accounts on XP, normal users can still install software and make changes to settings. But they must confirm the changes by clicking through a prompt that is isolated from other programs and therefore cannot be manipulated by malware.

OS X and Linux user accounts are, by default, created as non-administrators. The administrator account, known as Root, is actually turned off in OS X. Instead these operating systems rely on temporarily granting administrative privileges on a per-use basis.

Regardless of what operating system you run though, you should never do your day-to-day computing from an administrator account.

What's the Difference Between Free and Paid Security Software?

There are, of course, free software packages that provide essential security tools such as anti-virus, anti-malware, and firewall, such as AVG and Comodo Firewall. The problem is that no one offers all those tools together in one easy-to-use package without charging you an annual subscription fee. So, while you could cobble together an adequate defense for free, the easiest and most reliable way to protect your PC is to pay for one of the many commercial suites of Internet security software.

In addition to the simplicity of having all the various pieces of security software integrated, for-pay products tend to have advanced features, such as parental controls, password safes, or file encryption, that aren't essential but can enhance the security of your PC.

Using a combination of free apps (or a mix of free and commercial software) does have its perks however. The integrated suites can be vulnerable to viruses and attacks that can shut down all your computer’s defenses in one shot¬—something much more difficult to accomplish with separate security programs.

Unfortunately some free programs will try to install unnecessary browser toolbars (which you can opt out of during installation), and many free versions of apps will repeatedly ask you to upgrade to the paid versions.

Do You Need Parental Controls?

Both Windows and OS X have built in parental control features, but they're very basic. The controls built into security suites tend to be much more robust and customizable. You can block certain programs from running during particular times of the day, or to run only for a set amount of time. You can also quickly block or unblock Web sites as the need arises in a much simpler fashion than the built-in features of your OS.

Don’t Get Fooled into Buying Rogue Security Software

Rogue security applications masquerade as real virus or spyware-protection programs for the sole purpose of separating you from your money. At best, the programs do nothing; you simply lose however much money you paid for what is, essentially, worthless junk. At worst, these programs can track your keystrokes and steal your personal information from your PC.

Perpetrators of rogue security software scams use a wide variety of methods to fool potential victims. One very common method is to pop up a flashing or other seemingly scary message when you visit a website that tells you "Your PC is infected with a virus. Click here to fix".

If you click on the ad, you may be authorizing it to download the malicious software to your computer and, once installed, you will keep getting messages about viruses, spyware, etc. on your PC that can only by fixed by buying the "premium" version of the product. Of course, there are no viruses on your PC except for the rogue security program itself.

For more information, read Protect Yourself from Fake Security Software.
 

Our Picks: Commercial Security Software

Norton Internet Security 2010Norton Internet Security 2010 (street: $43, retail: $70 for 3 PCs) Symantec's latest version of the popular Norton suite comes with a number of impressive features, including parental controls, Insight (for detecting causes of system slowdowns), and Quorum, a feature for detecting as yet unidentified threats by watching how a program behaves as well as checking it's reputation by analyzing download and usage statistics from other Norton users. Quorum also takes locality in to consideration, so downloads from, say Russia, will automatically be trusted less than those coming from within the U.S. You'll also get a firewall and malware protection for removing spyware and the like. Norton goes beyond pure security though and offers Insight, which helps identify what programs are causing system slowdowns.

Norton's impact on system performance has been significantly reduced, and it's more effective at blocking malware than its competitors, according to recent lab tests. Buy Now at Amazon.com

Kaspersky Internet Security 2010 (street: $33, retail: $80 for 3 PCs) Kaspersky is the least resource intensive of the bunch, making it perfect for older machines. It packs a behavior based threat scanner, anti-malware, and a firewall just like Norton, but it offers its own unique features as well. Most impressive is Safe Run, a way to run programs "sandboxed" from the rest of the programs on a computer, including the operating system. This is perfect for Web browsing since it can prevent the installation of spyware and viruses, but note—programs will be significantly slower when run in this mode.

Kaspersky Internet Security 2010 also has iSwift and iChecker scans that only check files that have changed since the last scan, making "quick scans" actually quick. There is also a gimmicky, but useful onscreen keyboard for entering passwords that key-loggers and most spyware will be unable to detect.

Its one major flaw is interface design. Many options and settings, including basic ones like the scan scheduler, are buried in menus when they should be right up front. Buy Now at Amazon.com

Norton Internet Security 4 for Mac Norton Internet Security 4 for Mac (street: $33, retail: $80) There aren’t nearly as many choices of security suites for Mac, which perhaps explains why this suite costs $10 more than a similar PC version, but it does the job effectively. It provides protection against malware, identifies fraudulent websites and includes a firewall. Scanning of files is slow, so best to schedule scans for overnight. Buy Now at Amazon.com

Our Picks: Free

Avira AntiVir Personal: Avira offers reliable, basic protection from viruses and malware just like the other free options on this list. But it does have one feature most other free security offerings lack—boot time scan. Avira can scan your PC for viruses and malware before Windows has a chance to load, this is essential for removing rootkits, or viruses designed to circumvent security programs. Download Now at Free-AV.com

Microsoft Security Essentials: MIcrosoft's free anti-virus package was generally received warmly when it was released a couple of months ago. And when combined with the built-in Windows firewall, it constitutes a full-fledged (if basic) security suite. It may lack some of the more advanced options of even its free competitors, but according to independent tests, it and Avira rank with the best commercial offerings when it comes to detection and removal. And, like Avira, it can remove rootkits. Download Now at Microsoft.com
 


Discussion loading

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From ashiaali33 on January 12, 2010 :: 1:50 am

This is a great post. I’m glad it was bumped. Otherwise I would’ve missed these very useful information.

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From Firewall Software on January 18, 2010 :: 12:25 pm

Nowadays, with many hackers around us, internet security is very important. My Mac has anti-virus installed to ensure its safety. To prevent troubles with our computers and most importantly with our identities, it is very important to have this online protection.

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From Khürt Williams on January 27, 2010 :: 11:18 pm

“While there are still far fewer threats out there targeting Apple users, they do exist. “

I’ve googled all over and found no known viruses, trojans or other malicious software that targets Mac OS X Snow Leopard, Leopard or Tiger.  Could you please provide some evidence for that statement?

“No one wants to be a victim of the first major OS X virus outbreak.”

Anti-virus software can only protect against known viruses.  How does buying a Mac anti-vrius software today protect against an unknown threat tomorrow?

McAfee and Norton sell anti-virus for Mac but has no list of known Mac viruses on their web sites.  They do have a VERY long list for Windows.

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A True Apple Fan Boy

From Pancho Weetos on February 25, 2011 :: 10:57 pm

Spoken like a true Mac Freak….nicely done.

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Not sure I like your name calling

From Khürt L Williams on February 26, 2011 :: 9:24 am

Not sure I like your name calling.  Yes, I am a fan of the MacIntosh platform.  I also have extensive experience with Windows, UNIX and Linux operating systems.  So read this, http://khurtwilliams.com/#aa5/linkedin, and then come back and call me by another name.

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From Josh Kirschner on January 29, 2010 :: 2:36 am

There have been a handful of Mac OS X threats in the past. You can find some of them here: http://www.symantec.com/security_response/threatexplorer/azlisting.jsp?azid=O.  The point is not that there are many viruses out there, but to demonstrate that viruses/worms/trojans have been written for the Mac and almost certainly will be again.

Buying virus protection software will protect you from future unknown threats because the antivirus companies become aware of threats very quickly and release fixes in the daily updates, hopefully before they’ve spread enough to infect your computer.

Antivirus programs such as Norton also use algorithms to detect suspicious behavior in programs, even if those programs have not been explicitly identified as viruses.  Independent tests have shown that these features work well for unknown PC virus protection.  How well will they work for Macs given the limited experience with Mac viruses?  We’re really not sure.

What’s been frustrating about major Windows virus outbreaks in the past is not that they were unknown, it was that they were well known yet people still didn’t take action to protect themselves.  If (when?) a major Mac outbreak occurs, I doubt it will be different.

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From Khürt Williams on January 29, 2010 :: 3:50 pm

That link you provided does not list any viruses for any current production version of OS X.  If anyone is running an older un-patched version of Apple Mac OS X 10.3, 10.3.1, 10.3.2, 10.3.3 or Windows 95/98/Me then you will have issues.  The vast majority of Mac users have upgrade by now to Leopard (10.5) or Snow Leopard (10.6).  There might be some people still running Tiger (10.4).  But none of those versions of OS X have known exploits by viruses.

Symantec listed two trojans that exploited a system vulnerability.  Apple patched both of those.  Here is Symantec’s analysis of each.

AplS.Saprilt.B
Risk Level 1: Very Low
Threat Assessment
Wild
Wild Level: Low
Number of Infections: 0 - 49
Number of Sites: 0 - 2
Geographical Distribution: Low
Threat Containment: Easy
Removal: Easy
Damage
Damage Level: Medium
Payload: Opens a back door.
Degrades Performance: Exploits a privilege escalation vulnerability.
Distribution
Distribution Level: Low
http://www.symantec.com/security_response/writeup.jsp?docid=2008-062017-0131-99

This one is for OS X 10.5.
OSX.Saprilt.C
Risk Level 1: Very Low
Threat Assessment
Wild
Wild Level: Low
Number of Infections: 0 - 49
Number of Sites: 0 - 2
Geographical Distribution: Low
Threat Containment: Easy
Removal: Moderate
Damage
Damage Level: Low
Payload: Opens a back door.
Distribution
Distribution Level: Low
http://www.symantec.com/security_response/writeup.jsp?docid=2008-062404-1222-99


Risk is a function of the likelihood of a given threat exercising a particular potential vulnerability, and the resulting impact of that adverse event on the organization.

Given that there are no current viruses for any shipping version of OS X ( again that link had none) what is the point of giving McAfee or Symantec money every year for something we know is very unlikely and would most likely have low adverse impact?

I stand by my position.  Anti-virus, on OS X, is unnecessary.

The risk level of dying in a car is very high (42,000 death per year) and yet we all still drive.  We take the precautions that cost the least (seat belts, airbags) but yet have the most impact on safety.  We don’t protect against everything that could go wrong.  Just against the things that are likely to go wrong.

I would just rather patch my system (for FREE) than pay for something that reduces a low risk threat and can not guarantee protection for the unknown.

Cheers,
Khurt Williams, CISSP
http://www.linkedin.com/in/khurt

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From jeff on June 05, 2010 :: 12:10 am

Great article! I have been using microsoft security essentials since it came out and it is way better than any of the others I have tried (avg, avast, paid for suites) The paid for suites like nortons and mcafee etc. are resource hogs and honestly I wouldnt reccomend them to my worst enemy in my opinion. Personally I run malwarebytes antimalware with MSE on windows 7 and have zero problems. I cant remember ever having a virus or any malware slip through. Nothing is perfect but im impressed so far. Anyways just wanted to say great article.

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From Josh Kirschner on June 06, 2010 :: 10:01 pm

Jeff, thanks for posting your experiences.  I agree that in the the past Norton and McAfee were resource hogs (an old version of Norton used to KILL the performance on my previous desktop).  However, they have improved dramatically and, based on my experience with Norton over the last couple of years and other independent tests, the resource impact is now practically nil.

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this is really helpful -

From Stephanie on June 21, 2010 :: 10:35 pm

this is really helpful - thanks Techlicious!  I am wondering whether it is worthwhile to buy AVG or PCTools or just stick with the recommended Norton product.  Also, I see that the newer programs combine features that you had to get previously from installing >1 program.  I’m wondering if at this point all I need is one antivirus program to get the job done right?  Final question is what to do to make sure I didn’t already backup something malicious on my external hard drive?  How do I handle securing it?  Can’t wait to read your replies.

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Hi Stephanie, Almost all the

From Josh Kirschner on June 21, 2010 :: 11:16 pm

Hi Stephanie,

Almost all the major products are now offered as security “suites”, which include protection against viruses, spyware, and trojans, as well as offering anti-spam filters.  Many also offer personal firewalls, password management applications, parental controls, PC optimization tools, etc., etc.  So, generally speaking, you really only need to install one security software package.

AVG and PC Tools are both very good offerings and should work for you.  However, we feel the combination of features, security, processing speed and price are best demonstrated by Norton and Kapersky.

Whichever one you go with, just ensure that you set the program to protect your external hard drive as well (this will probably be done automatically on installation).

If you would like to read the gory details of anti-malware performace testing for all of the major security suites, you can find an excellent evaluation here: http://www.av-comparatives.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=144&Itemid=152

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From Roger on February 07, 2011 :: 3:21 pm

Computer protection is very important to me. When I first started my business I was using very minimal protection because it was the cheapest. Lets just say I learned the hard way really fast. At the time I didn’t have any time to back up my computer so all of my important information was just on my computer. Next thing I know my computer is absolutely trashed with viruses. I ended up losing all of my work and had to re-install everything on my computer. It is well worth the cost to purchase the best software available to protect your computer.

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How about the list for

From Sai Charan on August 03, 2013 :: 7:42 am

How about the list for 2013 ?
This is outdated i guess !
i am interested to read a similar post that helps for better security in 2013 smile

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Yep, here's 2013

From Josh Kirschner on August 03, 2013 :: 12:25 pm

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Thanks bro !

From Sai Charan on August 03, 2013 :: 2:11 pm

Thanks for your Quick response smile
Visit my blog too, its on same niche.Love to have your suggestions regarding by blog !

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