Bolster your browser’s security
Even with the best security software in place, you can still be taken for a fool online.
McAfee SiteAdvisor will check links in search results and indicate, via a small icon next to a link, whether it’s safe to visit. It also works on social networks like Twitter or Facebook, which tend to be security minefields thanks to the widespread use of URL shorteners as well as viral links of questionable origin.
Meanwhile, the HTTPS Everywhere extension from the Electronic Frontier Foundation can automatically encrypt your connection to most websites. That’s useful if you want to prevent others on your network from potentially eavesdropping on your web browsing. HTTPS Everywhere can’t hide which websites you visit, but it does protect information sent between you and the website as well as obscure the specific pages you visit.
In this day and age, no browser is complete without an ad blocker. That’s not only to avoid annoying advertising. Every now and then a popular site ends up delivering malware via one of its advertising providers. An ad blocker can help mitigate these threats. Two popular options are AdBlock Plus and uBlock Origin (available for Firefox too).
In addition, the EFF’s Privacy Badger is a popular option to stop tracking cookies and other forms of online surveillance.
Keep the kiddies from seeing stuff they can’t unsee
No matter how responsible your kids are online, there’s always a chance they’ll inadvertently venture into parts unknown.
Luckily, recent versions of Windows come with a comprehensive suite of parental controls, so you don’t need to download anything. On Windows 10, open the Start menu and click Settings, then go to Accounts > Family & other users to get started. Note that the Family feature on Windows 10 requires you to sign in with your Microsoft account.
Beyond that, OpenDNS FamilyShield is worth a look. FamilyShield isn’t an app; instead, it’s a service offered by OpenDNS that automatically blocks adult websites. You can set it up on individual computers at home, or you can set it up on your router so that every device on your home is protected. Of course, FamilyShield won’t provide you with the full suite of parental controls, such as app restrictions and time limits, but you can use it in conjunction with other parental controls tools for added online safety.
Keep your software up to date, automatically
Oftentimes, malware creators don’t target Windows itself—instead, they’ll target security holes in popular PC software such as Adobe Reader. To reduce this risk, you’ll want to keep all your software up to date. Doing this manually can be a pain, so an update checker can save you lots of time.
Flexera Personal Software Inspector—formerly Secunia PSI—is a free tool that does just that: It scans your PC for insecure older versions of popular programs and can even automatically install the latest security patches for them.
Lock down your laptop
Laptops get lost or stolen all the time. There are things you can do to reduce the risk, such as using a notebook lock or simply not using your notebook in public, but nothing can mitigate the risk of theft entirely. You can keep your data from falling into the wrong hands, though.
The Prey service lets you lock down your laptop in case it’s been stolen. It consists of a piece of software that runs in the background and tracks your laptop’s location whenever it goes online.
If your laptop ever goes missing, you can use Prey to find its whereabouts, snap a photo of the alleged thief, and lock down the device if necessary. For $5 per month, you can also remotely wipe your machine, or retrieve files from a wayward laptop. It may seem weird to suggest paying for something in an article about free security products, but in this case it’s money well spent.
Windows 10 offers a find-my-device feature that lets you locate a lost or stolen laptop or tablet; however, Microsoft’s built-in version doesn’t offer all the features of Prey, including the critical remote wipe.
Another critical part of locking down a laptop—or any PC, really—is to use encryption. If you have a PC running Windows 8.1 or later that supports Microsoft’s device encryption, you can encrypt your data simply by pairing it with your Microsoft account. But be warned: This feature typically stores your encryption key on your OneDrive, as Ars Technica notes, which could be an issue if the entity trying to break your encryption is a government agency that could legally compel Microsoft to hand over the key.
If you’re running Windows 10 Pro you can also use BitLocker encryption, which comes built-in. It’s also available on versions of Windows going back to Vista. See our tutorial to get started. Alternatively, there’s VeraCrypt, a free and open-source fork of the long-trusted (and now defunct) TrueCrypt software.
Secure your BIOS: The advanced option
This recommendation is best suited to advanced users. Popular Twitter-based security pundit SwiftOnSecurity recommends on its associated website Decent Security that users set a password for their BIOS. To do this, enter your BIOS—this differs depending on your PC model but we have a general guide to entering the BIOS. Once you’re there the password option should be under a heading such as General or Security. Then create the password you’d like to use. Try to opt for something simple and memorable as this is only a security measure meant to stop someone who has access to your computer or low-level malicious software trying to do something bad.
Go forth and be free
Those are the essentials for putting together a free security suite. It takes a little work, but the savings are worth it. Plus, you can swap out any of these components when better options come along.
Editor’s note: This article was updated in full in September 2017.