Cybereye | Protect your PC at all times

William Jackson


October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month, a cooperative outreach effort by the Homeland Security Department and the National Cyber Security Alliance to promote online safety and best computing practices among the general public.

A survey commissioned by NCSA and Symantec Corp. to kick off awareness month shows that a lot of work remains to be done educating the public on computer security, and personal experience shows that the security companies still have a lot of work to do in making their products user friendly.

According to the survey, fewer than half of computer users have the complete holy trinity of IT security: A personal firewall, antivirus and antispyware. Although 81 percent of the 3,000 users surveyed assumed they had a personal firewall, a checkup performed by Symantec on 400 of those users found that only 42 percent had one installed and enabled.

'What we have is a perception-versus-reality issue here,' said Symantec public affairs director Adam Rak.

People were doing better with antivirus protection, with 95 percent of them having it installed. But personal experience demonstrates that this most basic of security tools still can be a royal pain to deal with. I warn friends and family that they should always have antivirus on their PCs and keep it regularly updated; I wouldn't think of running my computer without it. But a recent attempt to renew the subscription for the service on my home computer turned into a four-hour ordeal of downloads and activations.

I won't go into details. It was my wife who handled it and I wisely stayed out of her way during the process. But she knows her way around a computer and is an intelligent and organized woman, at least as competent to handle this as the average user. Maybe she made mistakes, and she may well have a share of the blame for the frustrating experience, but the point is if the process is so complex that she had problems with it, it is far too complex for a feature that is considered a universal necessity for safe computer use.

We all have heard horror stories about difficulties in installing software, inadequate performance once it is installed, poor support from the vendor and the near impossibility of removing the software if we want to replace it. So it should really be no surprise that 5 percent of users are not using antivirus software, 18 percent are not using antispyware, 58 percent have no firewall, 42 percent have no antispam tools and 50 percent have no antiphishing tools.

On the plus side, major vendors are embedding more security into their operating systems and browsers so that users don't have to install it or operate it to protect themselves. And ease of installation and use has been of growing importance for security companies that probably are tired of customers venting their frustrations on them or looking for alternative products. But apparently they aren't quite there yet.

Rak, speaking at the kick-off of awareness month, equated antivirus, antispam and firewalls for computers with seat belts, antilock brakes and air bags on an automobile. When these features come standard on computers, and when they are as easy to use as a seat belts and brakes and as transparent as air bags, computer safety will take a big leap forward.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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