There was a time when firewalls were considered to be within the exclusive domain of large corporations – they were used to keep Internet users from being able to connect to systems within a private network. As the popularity of the Internet grew, however, hackers and script kiddies began to recognize that there were far easier targets out there, namely end users (using both dial-up and broadband connections), who often neglect to secure their computers while online.
In much the same way that you wouldn't leave your car doors unlocked in a public car park, it's absolutely essential to lock Internet users out of your computer by using a firewall. This month we outline why firewalls are necessary, how they work to protect your system, and what features you should be looking for in a firewall to ensure maximum protection.
At the most basic level, a firewall's job is to control what network traffic can enter or leave your PC. In its most common configuration, a firewall will automatically block all connection attempts to your computer from Internet users, but enable any Internet requests originating from your PC to be completed unencumbered. In other words, a firewall will stop outside users from being able to connect to your system, while making it possible for you to access the Internet unrestricted.
This default configuration works perfectly for most users, but firewalls typically also provide a greater level of control over what enters or leaves your system. For example, you might want to block all outgoing requests from your computer, except those for common services such as browsing the Web, and sending/receiving email messages. In this configuration, a user trying to connect to a service like MSN Messenger from your computer wouldn't be able to.
Having a firewall enabled to protect your system is critical for a couple of different reasons. The first is the large number of security threats that Windows systems are susceptible to – unprotected and unpatched systems can often be attacked by Internet users who scan ranges of IP addresses looking for vulnerable systems. With a firewall in place, these connection attempts are denied by default, a feature known as inbound protection. If your system is not protected, outside users can potentially take control of your computer, root through your personal files and much more.
Second, a good firewall enables you to control what leaves your system, destined for the Internet – a feature known as outbound protection. This is important at a time where both spyware and virus infections continue to wreak havoc on user systems. With the right firewall installed, spyware programs on your system will not be able to collect and forward personal files and/or data from your computer to servers on the Internet, and viruses will have a tougher time trying to mass-mail themselves to contacts in your address book. On the Internet today, having control over what leaves your system is just as critical as having control over what enters it.
If you're using Windows XP and have installed Service Pack 2, then all of your system's network connections are automatically protected by Windows Firewall (assuming you haven't installed another personal firewall package). While Windows Firewall offers inbound protection (and enables you to specify which programs or services accept connections from Internet users via a feature known as Exceptions), it does nothing to control what leaves your system – it lacks any level of outbound traffic control. So, if your PC were infected by spyware, it would be able to communicate over the Internet without restriction. The information being sent from your system might be as ‘harmless' as details of the Web sites you've been browsing, but could also be personal information such as your credit card number, or files of your captured keystrokes.
Does that mean Windows Firewall doesn't offer enough protection? Not necessarily. Windows Firewall can be all the firewall protection you need, but only if you're absolutely certain that your system is not infected by a virus, spyware, or other threats. On a clean system, you shouldn't need to be concerned about traffic destined for the Internet, as it would all be requested by you. However, threats such as spyware and viruses are very real, and continue to infect the majority of desktop user PCs. With that in mind, most users need both inbound and outbound firewall protection.
If you're worried that your system may not be adequately protected by Windows Firewall (or if you're not running Windows XP), then it's time to consider adding third-party firewall software to your PC. There's no shortage of options available, including ZoneAlarm, Kerio Personal Firewall and others. These products offer complete inbound and outbound protection, while giving you control over elements such as which installed programs are given access to the Internet.
While the paid versions of these products come with a wide range of advanced features (such as the ability to protect your credit card information or scan email messages for viruses), most are available in free versions that still offer comprehensive inbound and outbound firewall protection, not to mention on-screen notifications alerting your to significant events such as connection attempts from outside users, programs attempting to connect to the Internet on their own, and more.
Inside Windows Firewall
Follow these tips to enable and configure Windows Firewall
To check if Windows Firewall is protecting your system, go to Control Panel and look for an applet of the same name under Classic View. If it's there, open it to view the General tab, which should be set to On (recommended). If it's not present, install SP2.
You can control which programs and services should enable inbound connections from the Exceptions tab. Checked items enable inbound connections of that type – when items are unchecked, the connections are blocked. Custom exceptions can also be defined.
Use the Advanced tab to selectively enable or disable the service for different connections, configure log file settings, and more. Be sure that logging is enabled if you want to track inbound connection attempts to your PC, for example.
You can find many freewares (general features/available free of cost) or evaluation versions (limited features/can be used for a specific time after which you'll need to purchase the product) of firewall in the Internet. Based on your requirement, you can always search for a best one for you and start using it. However, for your convenience, we have compiled a list of firewalls that are mostly freewares and few evaluation versions.
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