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Watching Our Backs
by
Posted On April 1, 2006
Security and data protection have been weighing on my mind of late. It's probably a combination of the ongoing incidents of data security breaches at companies and organizations (and frustration over the lack of adequate protective measures), the slow pace of progress toward enacting data protection laws, the denial-of-service attacks on my home network router, and the need for constant vigilance in updating all manor of protective software for our PCs. If you've ever had a malicious virus or worm wreak havoc on your system, you're probably just as paranoid as I am.

I was concerned enough to attend Frank Cervone's presentation at the recent Computers in Libraries 2006 (CIL) conference. He talked about free and inexpensive products that provide protection against all manner of unsavory and dangerous items in our IT environments. He covered five categories of products: antivirus, firewalls, spyware detection and removal, anti-trojans and rootkit removers, and generally useful utilities.

I already have Spybot, McAfee's VirusScan, Ad-Aware, Norton Utilities, and several other protective programs running on my PC. I run frequent automatic backups on key data as well as periodic full backups. Firewall protection is turned on; I do Windows Automatic Updates, and I'm very cautious about the sites I visit and the files I download. But, even with that, I've experienced enough problems to justify continued vigilance. So, I was eager to hear Cervone's advice.

As I mentioned in the conference blog (http://www.infotodayblog.com), a number of the products he discussed were new to me. They are also particularly appropriate for library network environments. He recommended using a virus detection product like BitDefender 8, even if you use one from Norton. While ZoneAlarm is a firewall product I use, he noted that Outpost Free Firewall offers a bit more than ZoneAlarm in the free version and does real-time connection monitoring (processes and ports).

He said that much of his work lately has been directed at spyware detection and removal. One that stood out was Spybot Search and Destroy. He said he uses this in the library as the first line of defense.

Links to many of the CIL presentations are beginning to appear at http://www.infotoday.com/cil2006/presentations. When Cervone's presentation is added, I highly recommend taking a look at it. Our computers are just too important not to protect properly, and he's had a wealth of experience testing these products. (He's the assistant university librarian for information technology at Northwestern University.)

And, there's something else to note. Some unscrupulous companies have distributed spyware masquerading as legitimate software. So, it's good to thoroughly check out any software tools you might be considering.

I recently discovered software that provides a slightly different twist on security. SiteAdvisor is a "Web safety tool" that uses a visual red, yellow, and green rating system to help Internet users stay safe as they search, browse, and transact online. For nearly a year, the start-up company has been testing Web sites for security threats and nuisances. The company said it has tested sites representing more than 95 percent of Web traffic. So far it has red ratings for about 5 percent of sites and yellow ratings for about 2 percent of sites.

SiteAdvisor's ratings disclose and help prevent spyware, spam, viruses, browser-based attacks (such as exploits), and online scams. The software is designed to complement traditional security software, which tends to focus on technical threats and cleaning up problems after they occur. When you search with Google, Yahoo!, or MSN, SiteAdvisor's safety ratings appear next to search results. As you browse, a small button on your browser toolbar changes color based on SiteAdvisor's safety results.

Here's how the company's co-founder and CEO Chris Dixon describes it: "We focus on the practical, everyday implications of using a particular Web site. We believe consumers want to know, in plain English: ‘If I download this program, will it come with adware?' Or, ‘if I sign up here, how much and what kind of e-mail will I receive?' SiteAdvisor works so well for average consumers because it zeros in on the moment of decision, when users are about to interact with a dangerous site. We can tell them: ‘We've been here before, and here's what happened to us.'"

Even if you decide not to download the software, the SiteAdvisor Web site offers a free look-up service. Type in a URL and get a very helpful report on the site's safety, including how many e-mails a week you can expect if you provide your address to the site and whether downloads are safe.

SiteAdvisor was founded in April 2005 by a group of MIT engineers who said they were tired of cleaning spyware off the computers of families and friends. The free trial version of SiteAdvisor's software for Internet Explorer (as a plug-in) and Firefox (as an extension) is available at http://www.siteadvisor.com. The company said it is developing premium versions of its software to be sold on a subscription basis.


Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.


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