Products for the Paranoid

Last year's tax return. Sensitive personnel information from your boss. Your bank records. Aunt Emily's secret pumpkin pie recipe. There's a good chance that all these things, or things just as private, reside on your hard drive. And if your computer is like most people's, it's vulnerable to more than just hackers.

After all, if you leave your PC unguarded, the office busybody could take a peek while you're at lunch. An unscrupulous hotel employee could rifle through your files while you're on the road. And at home, you may have to worry about nosy houseguests exploring your hard drive--or the kids destroying all your data by mucking around with your machine. The endless possibilities are enough to make anyone paranoid.

Problem is, Windows isn't great at security. No Windows operating system requires you to use a log-on password. Windows 2000 and XP offer such an option, but many people don't use it. (If your XP machine is on a large network, you need to use a password.) Windows Me and 9x provide pitiful security, with passwords that are easy for anyone to sidestep.

To find out whether additional precautions are worth the cost, we tested 14 PC security products. We looked at a specific class of products aimed at preventing unauthorized users from logging on to your PC and encrypting your files. In addition, some of the products remember log-on IDs and passwords for Web sites.

We tested hardware and software ranging in price from $30 to $280 across three categories: biometric devices, USB-based security keys and keyboards, and encryption software. (All of them work with Windows XP, 2000, Me, and 98.)

Biometric devices recognize human features as a password. They include fingerprint readers, as well as units with sensors to capture your iris, voice, or face to let you access your PC. We focus on fingerprint readers here because they are more mainstream and affordable than the other devices, which are typically reserved for specialized uses such as in high-security buildings. All of the fingerprint readers permit you to "enroll" prints from multiple fingers, helping ensure that the device will recognize them when you log on.

We also tested keyboards that incorporate smart card readers, which verify personal data on credit card-size devices. You have to buy the smart cards separately; they cost $8 and up per card. In addition, we looked at thumb-size security keys that connect to any USB port to unlock your PC. Finally, we checked out software that encrypts files and e-mail.

Which package is best for you? For office and home users, fingerprint readers are convenient and relatively inexpensive, with prices starting at $50. Security keys, which also start at $50, are more durable than fingerprint readers--they have no sensor to damage--and are best for traveling laptop users. (Overall, we weren't impressed with the security keyboards.) If you'd rather not invest in hardware, consider opting for encryption software ($30 and up). Extreme privacy devotees might want to enlist both software and hardware security. A word of caution: Encryption programs can affect PC performance (click here for details).

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