PC-based Malware Protection

In the early days of PC use, threats were limited: most home users were not connected to the Internet 24/7 through broadband connections, and the most common threat was a virus passed from computer to computer via an infected floppy disk. But things have changed dramatically over the last decade and current threats pose a much greater risk than ever before. According to SANS Internet Storm Center, the average survival time of an unpatched Windows PC on the Internet is less than 60 minutes (http://isc.sans.org/survivaltime.html). This is the estimated time before an automated probe finds the system, penetrates it, and compromises it. Automated probes from botnets and worms are not the only threats roaming the Internet-viruses and malware spread by e-mail, phishing, infected web sites that execute code on your system when you visit them, adware, spyware, and so on. Fortunately, as the threats increase in complexity and capability, so do the products designed to stop them.

Antivirus Products

Antivirus products attempt to identify, neutralize, or remove malicious programs, macros, and files. These products were initially designed to detect and remove computer viruses, though many of the antivirus products are now bundled with additional security products and features. At the present time, there is no real consensus regarding the first antivirus product. The first edition of Polish antivirus software mks_vir was released in 1987, and the first publicly-known neutralization of a PC virus was performed by European Bernt Fix (also known as Bernd) early in the same year. By 1990, software giants McAfee and Norton both had established commercial antivirus products.

Personal Software Firewalls

Personal firewalls are host-based protective mechanisms that monitor and control traffic passing into and out of a single system. Designed for the end user, software firewalls often have a configurable security policy that allows the user to determine what traffic is "good" and allowed to pass and what traffic is "bad" and is blocked. Software firewalls are extremely commonplace-so much so that most modern operating systems come with some type personal firewall included. For example, with the introduction of the Windows XP Professional operating system, Microsoft included a utility called the Internet Connection Firewall. Though disabled by default and hidden in the network configuration screens where most users would never find it, the Internet Connection Firewall did give users some direct control over the network traffic passing through their systems. When Service Pack 2 was launched, Microsoft renamed the Internet Connection Firewall the Windows Firewall and enabled it by default (Vista also enables the Windows firewall by default). The Windows firewall is fairly configurable; it can be set up to block all traffic, make exceptions for traffic you want to allow, and log rejected traffic for later analysis. With the introduction of the Vista operating system, Microsoft modified the Windows Firewall to make it more capable and configurable. More options were added to allow for more granular control of network traffic as well as the ability to detect when certain components are not behaving as expected. For example, if your MS Outlook client suddenly attempts to connect to a remote web server, the Windows Firewall can detect this as a deviation from normal behavior and block the unwanted traffic.

Pop-up Blocker

One of the most annoying nuisances associated with web browsing is the pop-up ad. Popup ads are online advertisements designed to attract web traffic to specific web sites, capture e-mail addresses, advertise a product, and perform other tasks. If you've spent more than an hour surfing the web, you've undoubtedly seen them. They're created when the web site you are visiting opens a new web browser window for the sole purpose of displaying an advertisement. Pop-up ads typically appear in front of your current browser window to catch your attention (and disrupt your browsing). Pop-up ads can range from mildly annoying, generating one or two pop-ups, to system crippling if a malicious web site attempts to open thousands of pop-up windows on your system.

Similar to the pop-up ad is the pop-under ad that opens up behind your current browser window. You won't see these ads until your current window is closed, and they are considered by some to be less annoying than pop-ups. Another form of pop-up is the hover ad that uses Dynamic HTML to appear as a floating window superimposed over your browser window. Dynamic HTML can be very CPU-intensive and can have a significant impact on the performance of older systems.

Windows Defender

As part of its ongoing efforts to help secure its PC operating systems, Microsoft created and released a free utility called Windows Defender in February 2006. The stated purpose of Windows Defender is to protect your computer from spyware and other unwanted software (http://www.microsoft.com/athome/security/spyware/software/default.mspx). Windows Defender is standard with all versions of the Vista operating system and is available via free download for Windows XP Service Pack 2 or later in both 32- and 64-bit versions. It has the following capabilities:

  • Spyware detection and removal Windows Defender is designed to find and remove spyware and other unwanted programs that display pop-ups, modify browser or Internet settings, or steal personal information from your PC.

  • Scheduled scanning You can schedule when you want your system to be scanned or you can run scans on demand.

  • Automatic updates Updates to the product can be automatically downloaded and installed without user interaction.

  • Real-time protection Processes are monitored in real time to stop spyware and malware when they first launch, attempt to install themselves, or attempt to access your PC.

  • Software Explorer One of the more interesting capabilities within Windows Defender is the ability to examine the various programs running on your computer. Windows Defender allows you to look at programs that run automatically on startup, are currently running on your PC, or are accessing network connections on your PC. Windows Defender provides you with details such as the publisher of the software, when it was installed on your PC, whether or not the software is "good" or considered to be known malware, the file size, publication date, and other information.

  • Configurable responses Windows Defender lets you choose what actions you want to take in response to detected threats; you can automatically disable the software, quarantine it, attempt to uninstall it, and perform other tasks.