The internet has seen exponential growth over the last decade, both in the array of resources available and in the amount of people that have grown to rely on it as a fundamental part of their daily lives. Over the last 15 years the number of worldwide users has risen from around 16 million to almost 2,000 million – from 0.4% to almost 30% of the global population.
It wouldn’t be difficult to list the reasons why this ever-expanding resource has garnered so much attention, but as with any platform as open as the World Wide Web, there are downsides to the advantages on offer. The “dark side” of the internet carries a number of inherent dangers to surfers. Hackers and writers of malicious code attempt to prey on the unprepared and there are far too many examples of users who have been subject to fraud, identity theft, or infection from malicious viruses, with repercussions varying from nuisance behaviour to irrecoverable loss of data.
So, how to protect against the various threats that exist and ensure that you are safeguarded against the ever-changing landscape of attack?
Luckily, security vendors are doing an excellent job of staying one step ahead of those who would look to access a computer through an internet connection for personal gain, and modern all-in-one security suites are particularly adept at offering multiple layers of protection and in automating this in an unobtrusive way.
These suites typically offer a range of components that vary from “essential” to “beneficial” in keeping threats at bay, and it’s vital that security software cover a number of core areas to ensure you are sufficiently protected.
Firewalls – the first line of defence
A firewall is effectively the first line of defence against both external (software that tries to access your computer over an online connection) and internal (software installed on your computer) code that may attempt to write or modify data stored in memory or on a hard drive. Firewalls control the flow of information by determining whether a particular resource should be granted access and work by referring to a set of rules, some of which are predetermined and some of which are determined on the fly. Modern firewalls pretty much manage themselves and many use a “whitelist” – a database of known, safe software to avoid interrupting the user for permission whenever a new program requests access. On occasions where manual confirmation is required, a good rule of thumb is that if the file requesting access is unknown it should be denied – a good system security suite will make it straightforward to change these rules at a later time if necessary.
A third-party software firewall is often seen as unnecessary by many modern users since Windows has included a built-in firewall since XP. Despite this, it is often advised to utilise a more dedicated alternative as part of a security suite anyway. Firewalls typically vary in their effectiveness, usability and degree of control, and the negligible price difference and added benefits of investing in a suite rather than a straight anti-virus package usually makes this decision quite straightforward.
Viruses and malware – the traditional threats
Though the importance of firewalls is a relatively new concept in home security, virus threats and scares have been around for a lot longer and most people are aware of the importance of maintaining a solid, reliable antivirus solution regardless of whether a computer is connected to the internet. Viruses effectively fall within the umbrella term “malware”, which is essentially any program designed to carry out undesired changes to data on a host computer. All good security suites include robust, frequently maintained databases designed to search incoming code for attributes that suggest the presence of malware, and either automatically block the data or request further action from the user. Modern suites also include features such as behavioural detection, which is capable of recognising malicious code based on atypical behaviour long before being flagged up by a traditional scan. This has increased the effectiveness of threat-prevention significantly, and is a further step forwards in countering the changing face of malicious threats.
The degree of the threat imposed can vary quite wildly, from frustrating pop-up adverts that can simply be closed to software designed to effectively “take control” of a computer and/or send sensitive details to a third party.
Identity theft and credit card fraud are two scary sounding terms that have received a lot of press in recent times, and could often be more detrimental than damage to data on a home computer. Again, modern suites are very effective at safeguarding sensitive information and preventing it from being passed on, and any security software worth considering should include this technology as part of its arsenal.
Spam – idle threat or genuine concern?
Spam is often seen as more of a nuisance problem than a genuine concern, and anyone with an email account will have come across unwanted messages from unknown sources. Spam in itself is typically less of a threat than other types of malware –provided it is recognised and deleted or blocked, it can do no harm. Problems arise when users respond to spam emails or visit websites linked within, as the majority lead to the retrieval of code that is malicious and could cause further damage.
It may come as a surprise to hear that spam is constantly on the increase. The reason why it may have become less of a perceived threat is because email providers have worked hard to standardise tools that can successfully detect and block such content. Most good email software, including online accounts, now employ effective anti-spam measures to prevent these messages from even reaching an Inbox. Modern security suites also offer additional protection with their own anti-spam components, which usually integrate with local software such as Outlook to help block and control undesired messages. But while spam is far less of a threat and an annoyance than it used to be, it is still vital to be aware of the dangers involved.
Staying safe online
It would appear that the frequency, variety and capabilities of malicious code is constantly on the rise, and while this is true to a great extent, security software vendors have remained particularly adept at staying one step ahead, as well as coming up with new technologies to pre-empt attacks at the earliest stage.
An effective suite that is installed, maintained and updated frequently offers an excellent degree of protection and peace of mind to the end-user and should be an essential part of any home or business setup. When combined with a dash of vigilance, users should feel safe in the knowledge that modern software is winning the fight against modern threats, offering a safe an assured way to enjoy the benefits of the internet.