In a world where viruses and stealth programs abound, protecting your computer from nasty bugs that float around the Internet and hackers on the prowl couldn't be more important.
A virus will crash an evening of writing letters or playing games faster than you can call for help. And hackers can turn your PC into an electronic "zombie" that silently attacks other computers on the Internet by flooding them with bogus traffic until they shut down.
No one need go without protection because solutions abound - programs that will not only protect you from viruses and hackers but also shield your privacy on the Internet.
We looked at two software suites that bundle viral and hacking protection, and found that Norton Internet Security 2002 ($70) by Symantec Corp., and McAfee Internet Security Version 4.0 ($70) by Network Associates offered sound protection at fairly reasonable prices. Both programs work with versions of Microsoft Windows up to XP.
From a price and performance standpoint, the two programs wound up in a dead heat. But each offers a few extras to distinguish it from the competition - and they may be the deciding point for you.
The first question you might ask is: Do you need this kind of protection?
Sure, you do. The past year hasn't been a good one for the Internet. Just last week, a Virginia-based Internet security company, Riptech, announced that it had seen an alarming upswing in the number of hackers attacking its customers. Meanwhile, Carnegie Mellon University's Computer Emergency Response Team Coordination Center (CERT) has warned that home computers are even more vulnerable than corporate machines, simply because home users are the last to patch up security holes in their browsers and operating systems.
You're especially vulnerable if you have a high-speed connection to the Internet through a digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable modem that leaves your PC connected to the Internet at all times.
Even routers, hardware devices that allow multiple computers to hook up to one DSL or cable modem and hide the identities of the computers behind them, aren't enough protection without a software "firewall" that guards against suspicious traffic in both directions. For example, Tom Powledge, group product manager for Symantec Corp., points out that if someone slips a program into your machine that sends data to a hacker's computer, a router alone won't protect you.
Norton's Internet Security 2002 (www.symantec.com) is the latest in a long line of Symantec utilities designed to protect your machine from various gremlins. Included in the suite are anti-virus, firewall, privacy control and parental control components.
Installing and configuring them all took less than 10 minutes, although downloading the latest anti-virus profiles from Symantic's Web site took another seven minutes over a cable modem. The setup was slightly more automatic than McAfee's suite, with defenses adjusted for medium security - enough for a solid wall of protection against most intrusions.
With its automatic update enabled, the program looks for new virus definitions on Symantec's Web site every four hours, so if you have an always-on connection, you'll never be out of date.
Moreover, NIS is set up to block the execution of "scripts," a popular programming medium for worm and virus writers, and to alert you to their presence, so your PC is protected even if the attacker hasn't yet been catalogued. E-mail also is scanned and cleaned of viruses in both directions.
The appropriate protections kick in when you switch user profiles under Windows XP. A child who logs on will be subject to the level of parental control set by the adult, both in Web browsing and access to important files that Mom or Dad want to keep confidential.
If banner ads make you angry, you can drag them to an ad trash can to block those specific ads from appearing again. The package comes with a long list of banner ads that can be blocked at your discretion, and you can add new ones to your list of un-favorites. Unfortunately, the program doesn't stop the most irksome type of advertising - pop-up and pop-under windows. Symantec says it will attack that problem in a future release.
McAfee Internet Security 4.0 (www.mcafee-at-home.com) offered the same basic virus protection, along with a firewall and privacy controls. But in addition, we liked the inclusion of McAfee Shredder, which makes sure that a file you delete really is wiped out and can't be easily recovered with standard disk utilities.
The MIS suite also installed in about 10 minutes with virus definitions taking a little less time to download than Norton's. While Norton automatically updates the virus definitions out of the box, you'll have to download an upgrade to the program (Version 4.02) from McAfee to get the same feature (the upgrade is at www.mcafee-at-home. com/naicommon/download/patches.asp).
MIS comes with a one-button security check that scans the system for a variety of problems and offers automatic fixes.
McAfee, while offering Web content filtering and ad blocking similar to Norton, also offers Web bug detection and filtering and stealth program detection. Web bugs are tiny graphics embedded in Web pages that help advertisers monitor your surfing habits, while stealth programs can be used to log keystrokes and send information to a foreign computer.
The only problem we had with MIS was that it never seemed to be satisfied that the latest update had been downloaded - even minutes after it was finished. The most recent update to the program last week fixed that.
Both products are a bit pricey at $70 if you're already using a good anti-virus program or firewall. McAfee and Norton have individual versions of their firewalls and anti-virus programs that cost about half as much as their Internet security suites.
In addition to running a good firewall and anti-virus program, officials with Comcast's Cablevision's broadband operation, which offers high-speed service in the Baltimore area, say you can protect yourself further by performing three simple tasks.
First, if you're not running a home network, turn off Windows' file-sharing capability.
Second, keep your Web browser and operating system updated with the latest patches and security updates from Microsoft or Netscape. Finally, clear the cookies and Web detritus from your computer's Internet cache on a regular basis.