Take care with internet security
Berlin - To go online is to live dangerously. Aside from the risk of viruses, there are also worms and Trojan horses - all trying to find an unsecured computer upon which to work their mischief.
Given those risks, it makes sense to install some kind of virus scanner. Freeware programs provide basic protection. If you want more security, you'll have to pay a little money for an all-around, worry-free package.
Your needs will depend on your individual circumstances, said Andreas Marx of the AV Test Institute in Germany.
"After all, you pick your car based on whether you drive a lot or a little." In other words, if you're only online a little bit, basic protection might be more than enough.
What's key is that you install some kind of virus protection, said Norbert Pohlmann, who heads the Institute for Internet Security at the Gelsenkirchen University of Applied Sciences in Germany. "Before you do anything, bear in mind that a free version is better than nothing."
Of course, commercial versions offer more security, said Marx. He compared free safety programs to a car's safety belt. "It can save my life in an accident." But modern car safety requires an airbag and crumple zones too. If you want the equivalent in computer safety, you're going to have to pay a little money.
Of course, freeware isn't necessarily inferior to commercial ware. German consumer goods tester Stiftung Warentest proved that with a test in 2011, in which the best free program, Avira Free Antivirus, got the same grade as the best commercial programme, Bitdefender Internet Security 2011.
Furthermore, while all the freeware programs got at least a "satisfactory" grade, several of the commercial versions were only graded "adequate". One even got a mark of "poor".
"You can buy something like that, but it's not absolutely necessary," said Matthias Gaertner, spokesperson for the German Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), referring to commercial computer protection.
Officially, the agency recommends three freeware programs for computer security: Avira Free Antivirus, Microsoft Security Essentials and Avast Free Antivirus.
A recent test by the AV Test Institute showed the free AVG Free Anti Virus program ranked only slightly behind the fee-based AVG Internet Security.
A lot of the extra functions that people expect from commercial software can usually be found in no-cost extensions to the freeware. Tools to protect against phishing and malware have already been integrated into Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. A child protection filter is offered for free from OpenDNS FamilyShield.
All anti-virus programs recognise attacks by comparing the suspected intruders with known troublemakers. Good databases will have all the problem candidates listed and will be upgraded regularly.
"It's harder with unknown programs," said Marx. Unlike most free programs, the commercial counterparts can recognise problems based on the way they behave.
This function kicks in when a program begins behaving strangely. Thus, Marx and the BSI recommend expanding any free antivirus software with the behaviour recognition software ThreatFire, which is also free. The BSI also notes that the free Avast virus program includes such functions.
Be careful when trying to pick out your anti-virus software, because there is now malware that pretends to be antivirus software. "It's best to depend upon a well-known name," said Marx. Only download the program from reputable sources, like the manufacturer's website or the download database of a computer magazine.
Regardless of whether you build up your anti-virus security out of individual components or buy a ready-to-go pack, bear in mind that there is no such thing as 100% protection.
It's still important to regularly update the Windows operating system and the anti-virus programs to keep out malware. But also avoid opening links or attachments in e-mails from unknown sources, said Pohlmann.
"Even if you have the best suite installed, you still can't turn your brain off."