Q&A: Protecting that New PC from the Minute It Comes Out of the Box

REDMOND, Wash., Dec. 16, 2003 — Many people likely are giving or receiving computers as holiday gifts this season. While recipients are eager to dive into the exciting world of computing, online communication and Web exploration, it’s also important that owners protect their new computers and personal information from viruses and hackers.

Neil Charney, Director, Windows Product Management Click image for high-res version.

This means getting the most recent software, such as anti-virus applications, as well as the latest operating system updates that may help to protect against recently discovered vulnerabilities. Such software can be downloaded from the Internet. However, since new online threats may have developed in the time between a computer’s manufacture and its sale, a user going online to get protective software needed for safe computing may be putting that computer and their personal information at risk.

Fortunately, users of computers running on Microsoft Windows XP can protect their machines even before the first Internet log-in. Windows XP comes with a built-in Internet firewall, which helps shield against online hazards. If it is not already turned on, it is a very simple process to do so.

Neil Charney, director of Windows product management at Microsoft, said engaging the firewall is one important step toward safer online computing. PressPass talked with Charney about ways Microsoft customers can keep their PCs more secure.

PressPass: Do people often seek your advice about protecting a computer?

Charney: Absolutely — in addition to the customer calls, each of us has our own opportunity to take “urgent” calls from family and friends with questions about their personal systems, including how to protect them from online threats that they hear about in the news. I’m happy to help, since I share Microsoft’s support of helping our customers become more secure.

I always tell home users there are three critical pieces to securing your PC: use an Internet firewall, get updates to your PC’s operating system, and use an up-to-date anti-virus product. They then ask, is this enough to keep me safe? Well, the main security challenges most users face come from two sources: threats from Internet browsing and threats that come in the form of e-mail attachments. As it happens, the Web and e-mail are the main reasons home PC users go online the most. Putting those three pieces in place will help give a PC a much stronger level of protection from online threats coming from the Web or e-mail, as well as ensure that a user’s information is protected to the best extent possible.

PressPass: If security software is available online, how can people safely make that first venture online to get that software?

Charney: The first line of defense against computer viruses is a firewall, a protective barrier between the computer and potentially harmful content on the Internet. Properly configured firewalls effectively monitor online data flow, and block external programs from communicating with your computer without your permission. I recommend that before home users ever connect a new computer to the Internet, they should activate the Internet Connection Firewall (ICF) included in their Windows XP operating system. The ICF can be found within your Control Panel, under Network and Internet Connections. If preferred, the user can utilize the PC’s network settings wizard to activate and configure the ICF.

PressPass: What if a user doesn’t have Windows XP, and therefore doesn’t have the Internet Connection Firewall?

Charney: For people who do not use Windows XP, there are a wide range of personal firewalls available from among our recommended partners: BlackICE, McAfee Security, Symantec, TINY Software, or Zone Labs (see Related Links at right). These can often be bought at retail stores, and should be installed and activated by the user before establishing any online connection.

As important as installing the firewall is ensuring that the firewall is configured with the filtering level set at least to Medium Security — though even better would be High Security. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine have installed a firewall but then turned it off. For the firewall to work, it must be turned on.

PressPass: What is the next step after deploying the firewall?

Charney: After activating the firewall, the PC user can then get online much more safely. A good first step after getting onto the Web is to visit Microsoft’s Protect Your PC Website (see Related Links, at right). Here the user not only gets information on a wide range of PC protection options, but Windows XP users can utilize a tool that will automatically install their firewall and keep their PC up to date using the Automatic Update feature of Windows Update. To give the PC maximum protection, I recommend regular software updates to your operating system and other software. These updates patch existing software flaws that can be exploited and also provide new layers of protection for existing software.

Users of Windows PCs can get these updates anytime from the Microsoft Windows Update website. I recommend users visit this site frequently, to ensure their system is current with the latest updates for Windows XP and older Windows versions. The computer can even do that for you, with the Automatic Update utility in Windows XP. The update utility also can be set to install software updates on a pre-specified schedule. Downloading updates can be time-consuming, depending on the user’s connection speed, but it’s a one-time action that is well worth the effort.

PressPass: With all this, is it still important for consumers to use anti-virus software?

Charney: Definitely — viruses don’t strike only corporate computers. The firewall and the software updates are critical lines of defense, but for complete protection the home user should ensure they use an up-to-date anti-virus software. These products provide regular updates of virus signatures that identify and block known viruses, on a regular basis — sometimes daily. Because new viruses appear so frequently, it is a good idea to update the virus signatures regularly to avoid leaving your system unprotected from known threats.

Most new computers come with anti-virus software already installed, but if no such software is installed on your PC, consider one of the many good products on the market today, from McAfee Security, Symantec, or TrendMicro. There are also some free options from Microsoft partner companies offered on the Protect Your PC site.

PressPass: How can people learn more about PC security?

Charney: The Protect Your PC site is an excellent resource. Also, part of our efforts at Microsoft in advancing Trustworthy Computing is direct outreach to users. This includes a monthly newsletter with tips and directions on ways to make computing safer and more worry-free. People can sign up for the newsletter . It is very important to us that we help as many people as possible protect their system to be able to enjoy a safer and more secure computing experience.

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