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Playing it safe

As much fun as it is to ferry your computer to LAN parties, what you find may not be all fun and games. How safe is your machine?

Last month, I examined options available for LAN-based gaming, specifically wired and wireless alternatives. I elaborated on matters related to speed, ease of use, needs, limitations, and cost. What I didn’t address, however, were security and privacy concerns, critical issues in a “connected” environment.

Sadly, like the rest of the world, the Internet is a dangerous place, one where hackers, crackers, and other techno-savvy miscreants constantly search for ways to pilfer your passwords, steal your credit card info, appropriate your identity, and/or simply ruin your day. Accordingly, once your PCs are linked for some good, clean multiplayer fun, it’s crucial that you establish a means of keeping those on the “outside” exactly where they belong. Hence, the topic this month is hardware and software methods for securing your data and keeping your game world a jubilant and safe place to be.

To begin, several things can be done to protect the computers on your network from outside intrusion. First, install a firewall to keep hackers and their ilk away from your personal data. As an aside, let me say that hacking isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve “hacked” games on numerous occasions to increase character stats or modify game elements. Many gamers hack data for the purpose of adding tweaks to their favorite diversions. While referred to commonly as modding, it’s still a form of hacking at heart. This activity, however, takes on a negative connotation when it’s used to gain unauthorized access to someone else’s computer for the purpose of stealing or corrupting data.

Next, you need to protect your PC from viruses and the havoc they create by employing capable antivirus software. Several reliable alternatives existÑon which I’ll comment–with some being standalone programs and others an essential part of utility suites.

Finally, you should establish a sound method of backing up and securing your data. Due to space constraints, I’ll cover that topic in a future column.

First, a firewall

A firewall is designed to prevent unauthorized access to or from a computer network, and can be implemented via hardware and software or a combination of both. Basically, a firewall examines all data entering or leaving a network and blocks whatever doesn’t meet specified criteria.

Firewall implementations include packet filters that examine each inbound and outbound packet, application gateways that apply security mechanisms to specific applications (like FTP and Telnet servers), circuit-level gateways that enable protection schemes when a TCP or UDP connection is established, and proxy servers that intercept messages and hide their true network addresses. Most firewalls employ two or more of the above.

When setting up a LAN, your first line of defense should be a hardware-based firewall. Fortunately, these are incorporated into most routers. While it can seem a bit tedious, it pays to invest time into properly configuring your router’s firewall immediately. If you’re not sure what you’re doing, stick with the default settings and make alterations as recommended in the instructions. Many routers include easy-to-use, wizard-based installations, and some even offer Web content filtering to block access to offensive Web sites.

In addition, I also recommend a first-rate, software-based firewall. Windows XP includes its own, but it’s not as effective as most third-party alternatives (although, it’s better than nothing). Other options include BlackICE from NetworkICE, Kerio Personal Firewall, McAfee Firewall, Norton Personal Firewall by Symantec, Outpost Firewall from Agnitum, Sygate Personal Firewall, and Zone Labs’ ZoneAlarm. All have their advantages and disadvantages, some are available in both free (crippled) and registered versions, and all offer varying levels of protection. The best provide bi-directional intrusion defense.

Say no to viruses

Beyond firewalls, antivirus software is essential for protecting your PC and its valuable data from external chicanery. If you haven’t been hit yet, you don’t know how annoying and potentially data-threatening viruses can be, making it hard if not impossible to play your favorite games (especially when your system starts acting flaky or your hard drive gets trashed).

Unfortunately, viruses are not as easy to avoid as they once were. In the past, you had to execute a program to get nailed by a virus–clicking on an e-mail attachment or booting from an infected disk. The danger now has widened to include malicious programs referred to as blended threats. With this new class of virus, your PC can be infected simply by being connected to a network. As far as options go, a gamut of antivirus programs–both freeware and registered–are there for the picking. I’ve employed several over the years, including McAfee VirusScan, Norton AntiVirus from Symantec, and Trend Micro’s PC-cillin. Each does its job well and gets high scores in most antivirus roundups, but they’re not all equally easy to configure and use. Of the three, I recommend Trend Micro’s PC-cillin. I’ve simply had too many problems (mostly bugs and software conflicts) with the McAfee and Norton products.

Put it all together

Nonetheless, employing standalone firewall and antivirus programs isn’t the only route available. I strongly suggest investing in a utility suite instead. In fact, you can usually buy one for approximately the same price as the firewall and antivirus software combined, making the rest of the incorporated utilities an added bonus. While I’ve used McAfee Internet Security and Norton SystemWorks, my personal favorite is SystemSuite from VCOM. A few minor failings aside, I always come back to it after venturing into the other camps.

It provides firewall and antivirus protection, but adds a menagerie of other valuable utilities, including a disk defragmenter, registry editor, clock synchronizer, task scheduler, software uninstaller, file undeleter, and more. SystemSuite also features an automatic updater to keep the software and virus definitions current, as well as a copy of PowerDesk, an excellent file manager that far exceeds Windows’ built-in offering. And, there are no annual renewal fees!

While not a security program per se, I also highly recommend Panicware’s Pop-Up Stopper Professional. It puts an end to most of those annoying ads that confront Internet users and eat processor cycles, displaying unneeded, unwanted, and occasionally offensive material. It’s highly customizable and effective. For cleaning up your online tracks and purging your system of unneeded clutter, a companion program, SureClean Professional, is another great addition, as is the newest member of the family, SpamWasher, a spam blocker.

It always pays dividends to play it safe. With broadband connections and home gaming LANs, it’s not a matter of if you’ll get hacked or hit by a virus. If you forego security and privacy measures, it’s a matter of when.

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