Antivirus software

Security Software: Protection or Extortion?

As the Conficker worm sprang to life on April 1, talk here at the PC World offices turned to some interesting debates about how best to protect PCs from malware threats. In recent weeks we've run several helpful articles offering tips, tricks, and insights to keep you and your PC safe from Conficker and other malware on the Internet. At the same time, a few among us have revealed that they don't run any security software at all on their own machines--and have no intention of starting now.

Shocking as it may sound, there are plenty of experienced, knowledgeable technophiles out there who laugh in the face of danger as they traipse unprotected through the wilds of the online world. Among them is our own Hassle-Free PC blogger Rick Broida, who prefers what he deems the relatively minor threat of malware to the annoyance of intrusive, nagging security apps.

Is he insane? Naïve? To find out, we gave Rick a podium to speak on behalf of those who shrug off the safety of antimalware suites, and to defend his point of view in a debate with security correspondent Robert Vamosi, who regularly reports on malware and other security threats for PC World's Business Center. Who's right? Who's nuts? You be the judge. Share your view in our comments section.

First up, Rick Broida presents his assertion that security suites are an unnecessary nuisance compared with the threat of malware.

Rick Broida: We Don't Need No Stinking Security Software

Security software is a scam. A rip-off. A waste of money, a pain in the neck, and a surefire way to bring even the speediest PC to a crawl. Half the time it seems to cause more problems than it solves. Oh, and one more thing: It's unnecessary.

Heresy? Crazy talk? Recipe for disaster? No, no, and no. For the past several years, I've run Windows (first XP, and now Vista) without a single byte of third-party security software. No ZoneAlarm. No Norton Internet Security. No Spyware Doctor. Not even freebie favorite Avast Home Edition. I use nothing but the tools built into Windows and a few tricks I've learned.

Want to know how much time I've spent cleaning up after viruses, spyware, rootkits, Trojan horses, keyloggers, and other security breaches? None. I'll say that again: none.

Maybe I'm asking for trouble (that sound you hear is fellow PC World columnist Rob Vamosi nodding furiously), but after years of infection-free computing, I have no qualms about my methods. Your mileage may vary, and I make no guarantees. But if you want to rid your system of pricey, performance-choking security software, read on.

My first line of defense is my router. Like most, it has a built-in firewall that blocks all unauthorized traffic and makes my network more or less invisible to the outside world. The second line of defense is Windows. XP, Vista, and 7 have built-in firewalls that help protect against "inside" attacks, such as if a friend were to come over with his spyware-infected laptop and connect to my network.

Of course, a router can't stop viruses, phishing, and other threats that arrive via e-mail. My secret weapon: Gmail. As I noted in "Use Gmail to Fight Spam," I route mail from my personal domain to my Gmail account. (From there, I can access messages on the Web or pull them down via Outlook.) Gmail does a phenomenal job filtering spam--much of which is malware. The service also performs a virus scan on all attachments.

By using Gmail as an intermediary between my POP3 server and my PC, I've kept not only spam at bay, but malware as well. I don't know whether Windows Live Mail and Yahoo Mail offer similar amenities, but for me Gmail is a slam-dunk solution. Even phishing messages are few and far between. Of course, as an educated user, I know better than to click a link in a message filled with scary come-ons ("Your account has been compromised!").

Speaking of phishing, the latest versions of Firefox and Internet Explorer offer robust antiphishing tools. Both will sound the alarm if I attempt to visit sites known to be fraudulent, meaning that even if I click something that looks like, say, a totally legit PayPal or eBay link, I'll get fair warning. And that's just the tip of the safe-browser iceberg: Firefox and IE are way more secure than in the old days. They block pop-ups, provide Web site ID checks, protect against malware installation, and so on.

As for other threats, I'm comfortable leaving my PC in the capable hands of Windows Defender. Microsoft's antispyware tool runs quietly and efficiently in the background. I "check in" once in a while to make sure it's active and up-to-date, but otherwise I never hear a peep from it.

Of course, that could mean bad stuff is slipping past Defender, right? Sure, it's possible. That's why I occasionally run a system scan using Ad-Aware or Malwarebytes Anti-Malware. (I'm not completely insane, after all.) So far, so good: The scans always come up empty.

Last but not least, I exercise common sense. I don't open e-mail attachments from people I don't know. I don't download files from disreputable or unknown sources. I don't visit Web sites that peddle gambling, porn, torrents, or "warez." (Yeah, I know, I'm boring.) In other words, I keep my Internet nose clean, which in turn keeps my PC clean.

At the same time, I make sure that automatic updates are turned on for Windows, my Web browsers, and any other software that gets patched regularly. And, perhaps most important of all, I rely on multiple backup methods just in case my system really is compromised somehow. For example, my Firefox bookmarks are all synced to the Web via Xmarks (formerly Foxmarks). I use the online-backup service Mozy to archive my critical documents and Outlook PST file. And drive-cloning utility Casper makes a weekly copy of my entire hard drive to a second drive.

Ladies and gentlemen of the security-software jury, I rest my case. My only real evidence is Exhibit A: me. After several years with XP and about six months with Vista, I'm still cruising along without a security care in the world. So, are you going to lock me up or accept me as your new messiah? Either way, I'm good.

Next up, security correspondent Robert Vamosi argues the opposing view.

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