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Thursday, November 1, 2007
Controlling the zones

Last month we set up an ADSL Router, which has built in firewall security. While useful for controlling browsing behaviour and limiting port activity, we still need additional firewall protection to control program activity. Probably the best free program to do that is ZoneAlarm.

Just ‘Google’ for this and you will be pointed to the latest version for free download. Once installed ZoneAlarm will appear in your system tray amongst the other items (representing memory resident programs) on your task bar.
One of the many useful things about ZoneAlarm is that it teaches you what is going on. When a program installs you receive notification of activity of which you would otherwise be unaware. For example, a new program wants to install a start up file so that next time you turn on your PC it will load automatically.
Sometimes, when doing a bit of housekeeping of your computer, you may want to turn a start up feature off, but this is not always as easy as it should be. In fact it can sometimes take hours to work out how to switch off a program that self-loads because there are so many ways this behaviour can be arranged. ZoneAlarm can identify such activity and you can make a note of the relevant program for future reference.
ZoneAlarm will also advise you when a program is trying to connect to the Internet, giving you the options to ‘allow’ ‘deny’ or just ‘allow for this session’, putting you in better control of what’s is going on on your PC.
We’ll briefly go through the free version. It has six main tabs down the left panel: Overview, Firewall, Program Control, Anti-virus monitoring, e-Mail protection, and Alerts & Logs.
Choosing ‘Overview’ we see three section tabs: Status, Product Info and Preferences. According to our Status we have had five intrusions blocked by ZoneAlarm (thanks very much); which has also blocked 574 access attempts. At present we have 221 programs that have been secured for Internet access. So there is no doubt we do need a firewall!
Under the Firewall tab you can adjust two settings: Internet Zone Security and Trusted Zone Security – the latter refers to your local area network (LAN) arrangement. They each provide three security levels you can adjust. For example you may want to disable, or adjust a setting to test if you have a configuration problem. Under Advanced you can block problem areas completely. Under Zones you can control computer access to the LAN and the Internet. This is why it is advisable to set your computers and other networked devices with static, rather than dynamic IP addresses. This was you can add an IP address as ‘trusted’ for instance, or block it off completely with ‘deny’.
The main tab for program control is the heart of the firewall, where all programs are listed and set for Access and Server. When a program first runs, ZoneAlarm will pop up and ask you what permissions you want to set for it. It is these permissions that are recorded in this list. Each item has four tick boxes, each of which can be set to ‘Allow’, ‘Ask’ or ‘Deny’. So, for example, if you inadvertently deny a program access, which you later realise was important, you can go here and reset the permission.
A fun list is under Alerts & Logs. You can check out the activity and you’d be surprised how many programs try and connect to the Internet, but are blocked by the firewall. Sometimes this can help you return to an installed program and search for hard-to-find options and switch them off. For example, I don’t need Roxio to go and look for updates every time it starts up. I know for a fact there are no more updates and never will be for this particular version. ZoneAlarm blocks it. But until we started using ZoneAlarm we did not know this program was trying to connect, conducting ‘unauthorised’ activity and using up system resources unecessarily. Even then it took some time to find out the appropriate setting to switch this pointless behaviour off.
We sometimes get kids in the office connecting their PCs to the network for a ‘LAN’ game. ZoneAlarm gives us full control over who connects, and what they are allowed to get up to.
ZoneAlarm has a comprehensive help file so when you have time there is plenty of useful information you can read.
Meanwhile, be aware of ZoneLab’s marketing gimmicks, especially the ZoneAlarm Security check up. If you agree to the Internet prompt this will conduct a full security and performance scan on your PC — nothing wrong with that. But the results, displayed through Microsoft Internet Explorer (even if your preferred default browser is, say, Firefox or Opera) leads you to a $50.00 buy in page for two products necessary to carry out the recommended fixes.
The free version of ZoneAlarm has one or two other marketing activities, which pop up from time to time, for example, encouraging you to buy in to the professional version. Fortunately, up till now, at any rate, this activity has not been too invasive.

Windows Defender

Finally, just to round off this note, you can obtain a free anti-Spyware program from Microsoft called ‘Windows Defender’.  It works in the background, performs a scan each time you start your PC and continues to monitor your system (real-time protection) to neutralise various sneak attacks. It’s a useful extra to go with your anti-virus and firewall tools.  By Nigel Benetton
 

Copyright © Insurance Times and Investments® Vol:20.10 1st November, 2007
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