Free Firewall, Virus, and Spam Protection

By Eric Grevstad | Posted January 29, 2004

Let's face it: Connecting your computer to the Internet is like sending your kids out to play in the traffic. With snoops, hackers, virus writers, script kiddies, worms, Trojan horses — and oh, yeah, spam, spam, spam, spam, junk e-mail, Viagra, and spam — swarming around every detectable modem, cable, or DSL connection, it's reckless if not brainless to go online nowadays without antivirus, firewall, and spam-fighting software installed.

Fortunately, there are plenty of first-class security suites available for Windows. And realistically, $50 to $80 is a bargain for the peace of mind and data protection a commercial antivirus, firewall, and spam-blocker bundle — such as McAfee's, Trend Micro's, or Symantec's provides.

But if you balk at even that investment — say, because you've bought a security suite for your small-business system but still need to protect a couple of home office PCs — you still have no excuse to practice unsafe computing. Several capable antivirus, firewall, and anti-spam programs are free for home or personal use.

Naturally, you shouldn't expect freeware firewalls and filters to include all the advanced features or flexibility of their deluxe siblings — or lavish tech support, other than FAQ lists, user forums, and in a few cases answers to e-mail inquiries. And you shouldn't abuse the vendors' generous good will by installing their free home versions on 500 machines at your corporate office — or on a home PC that's used for a profitable business, in case you're Stephen King. But if you want protection without paying, it's yours for the download.

Germ Proofing
Last November, we brought you the news that Computer Associates, eager to add some small-office and home market share to its enterprise security business, had cut the price of its eTrust EZ Armor antivirus and firewall suite (with one-year update subscription) from $50 to $0 through June 30, 2004.

We've since sampled the 9.3MB download on our home PC, and found it more than satisfactory. One minor surprise was that the eTrust firewall is nothing more or less than a slightly older version of Zone Labs' popular ZoneAlarm Pro with CA logos pasted over the originals. It doesn't have the eBay fraud and host-file lock (spoofed Web site) protection of Zone's latest versions, but includes the pop-up and banner-ad blocking and Web-browser cookie and cache controls not found in the free version of ZoneAlarm, and the same solid performance when it comes to thwarting port sniffers and PC hijackers.

Visually, CA's antivirus program is a plain, industrial-looking affair next to stylish consumer tools like Norton AntiVirus — its main interface is a Windows Explorer-like window where you can select drives, folders, or files for a manual scan. But EZ Antivirus also lets you schedule system scans and virus-definition updates (the default for the latter is a reassuring daily refresh), and offers a handy wizard that walks you through several separate menus' worth of configuration options.

Alternatives To ZoneAlarm
We've reviewed ZoneAlarm Pro ($50 for one year, $70 for two years) in the past, noting each time that the free-for-personal-use ZoneAlarm version — now at version 4.5 — is one of the best 4.8MB download values going. Though it's the most famous, however, ZoneAlarm isn't the only firewall available gratis.

We didn't see the free Tiny Personal Firewall on our most recent visit to Tiny Software's site, but Sygate's Personal Firewall 5.5 is still free for personal use. The latter is an 8.5MB download that lacks the virtual private network (VPN) support of the $40 paid version, and is limited to 20 rather than an infinite number of custom security rules.

Similarly, Agnitum has demoted version 1.0 of its Outpost Personal Firewall (2.5MB download) to freeware status in the wake of the Pro 2.0 edition's more sophisticated stateful inspection technology, program-component control, and automatic configuration.

And if you download the 4.9MB Kerio Personal Firewall 4, you can enjoy the full edition — including script, ad, and pop-up blocking and cookie control — for 30 days. After that, the deluxe features disappear unless you buy the software for $45.

Slice the Spam
Junk e-mail senders aren't quite on the run yet, but the advent of intelligent Bayesian analysis filters has started to turn the tide against the inbox flood of herbal performance enhancers, Nigerian investment opportunities, and shameless schoolgirls. Frankly, your choice of free and open-source spam filters is growing too fast for us to provide a definitive list, even after ruling out variants on the pioneering but mostly Linux/Unix-oriented SpamAssassin.

To be frank, most freeware spam-fighters require more tech-nerd tinkering than their antivirus and firewall cousins. Message interceptors like POPfile (5.7MB download) and SpamPal (600K plus optional plug-ins) involve reconfiguring your e-mail program — from account janedoe at mail.provider.com to account mail.provider.com:janedoe at 127.0.0.1, for example — and creating rules that route suspected spam mails to different folders based on the filter's edits to message headers or subject lines. (POP3 servers are dumber and need more manual tweaking than IMAP4 servers; Microsoft Outlook Express is dumber and needs more tweaking than most other e-mail clients.)

Still, freeware anti-spam programs repay the effort you put into setting them up. G-Lock's SpamCombat (1.8MB) lets you combine Bayesian filtering, HTML validation, and DNSBL (DNS Blackhole Lists or sender blacklists) for a triple whammy against junk mail. Our work PC is currently guarded by Spamihilator (560K), which starts out slowly but gets smarter with every passing day, as you click to teach it which of its interceptions (based on the frequency of common financial, pornographic, and other trigger words) are spam and which are safe to pass on to your inbox. The program also offers highly flexible, adjustable parameters for applying various filters and giving the green light to subscribed e-mail newsletters.

Czech the Windows
Computer Associates is, to our knowledge, the first U.S. vendor to offer a free antivirus package — although the big names like Symantec and McAfee provide both browser-based and downloadable manual virus checkers and cleaners or removers, without the automatic, always-on protection and self-upgrading functionality of their paid products.

But just as virus writers aren't restricted to America, neither are virus fighters. The Internet has brought the Czech Republic as close as the corner store, and shareware penny-pinchers have long relied on Grisoft's AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition (6.4MB download), a home version based on that company's previous-generation antivirus engine, minus tech support and the more flexible scheduling and interface of the $33.30 AVG Anti-Virus Pro 7.0. (Lacking a firewall program of its own, AVG offers a bundle of Pro 7.0 with the Kerio firewall for $55.)

Another Czech-based disinfectant is Alwil Software's Avast 4.1, whose site oddly refers to last week's outbreak as Win32:Beagle instead of Bagle but which offers a free Home Edition (7.4MB download) as an alternative to the Professional Edition ($40 for one year, $58 for two years). The home version lacks its paid sibling's script blocker and customizable scans and results history, but includes a specific Microsoft Outlook scanner in addition to generic POP3, SMTP, and IMAP4 e-mail protection.

Adapted from WinPlanet.com.

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