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Virus-Proof Your PC: For Free, For REAL

Paul Boutin, writing in Slate, offers "virus-proofing" tips [Daypop cites] that boil down to:

  1. Secure Outlook and IE, as best you can.
  2. Download the latest Microsoft security updates.
  3. Scan for spyware.

Not really such a simple plan, as it happens, not least because it doesn't leave you intrinsically safer than when you started. These are all important things to do, but: Applying the security patches to Outlook still leaves you using Outlook, which is frankly just plain something that no one should do without a paycheck riding on it; applying the Windows security patches is important, but it leaves your ports open to attack from the outside world; and checking for spyware is something you wouldn't have to do if you didn't run Outlook or IE in the first place.

Here are my three steps, roughly in order of importance:

  1. Stop Using Outlook. Replace it with something that doesn't use Explorer components, and which has sensible security defaults, like Mozilla Mail or Mozilla Thunderbird. They are superior to Outlook in every important regard; Outlook's only advantage plays to Yogi's gambit ("the only reason that place is so popular is because everybody goes there").
  2. Get A Personal Firewall. ZoneLabs and Kerio both have free versions that have all the basic features you'll need, especially if you're following recommendation [1] and [3]. BlackIce is also good. In a pinch, the mainstream solutions like Norton or McAfee are better than nothing. Do it, though -- even if you're on dialup. Just do it, already.
  3. Stop Using Internet Explorer. I hardly ever do, and I very seldom suffer for it. I use Mozilla, instead. It's better on just about every metric that really matters: Faster, safer, more rigorous and extensive standards support. I only use IE for applications which explicitly check for it, like Outlook Webmail, for work. (See [1]...) Mozilla is simply safer by design than Internet Explorer ever could be, if only by virtue of the fact that it is not deeply integrated into the Operating System in the Microsoft-approved manner.

These three steps will make your computing life markedly safer.

Notice the absence of an admonition to update Windows, install a spyware scanner, or install a virus checker. Those are great steps, they're important, with importance roughly in the order in which I've given them, but these three measures I highlight are by far the most important and powerful things you can do to enhance the security of your own system. Do them, and it becomes very difficult for a worm, trojan, or virus to infect even an unpatched, un-virus-scanned system.

Aside: I suppose I should point out that Slate is an MSN property, and as such, ill serves its masters by suggesting non-Microsoft solutions...


Thanks very much for the tips, escoles. Right now I may be looking at a hardware problem though...

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