By ANICK JESDANUN
AP INTERNET WRITER
September 17, 2006
NEW YORK -- Microsoft gives away a security firewall with its latest
operating system. Many high-speed Internet service providers offer free
anti-virus protection for subscribers. And several Web sites distribute
free toolbars to warn of Web scams.
AOL even recently made a package of basic security tools - anti-virus,
anti-spyware and firewall programs - available for free to anyone, not
just paying subscribers.
Despite all the free protection, primarily for Windows computers,
leading security vendors are moving forward with plans to start selling
their annual slate of security products this fall.
Why bother, when so much is available elsewhere at no cost?
"I absolutely don't argue that the highly tech-savvy consumer will and
can search the Web for freeware and knock out 90, maybe 95 percent of
the risk," said Lane Bess, Trend Micro Inc.'s general manager for
consumer products. "That's not the largest (base of) consumers out
Most people, he said, would rather install a package - for $50 in Trend
Micro's case - that does everything.
Free often means cobbling a package together:
* Taking the basic firewall that comes with the Service Pack 2 version
of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP, or getting a stronger one like Check
Point Software Technologies Ltd.'s Zone Alarm to monitor and block
outbound traffic as well;
* Adding anti-virus protection from a high-speed Internet provider like
Comcast Corp. or Time Warner Inc.'s Road Runner;
* Obtaining one or more free spyware removal tools like Spybot Search &
* Installing a toolbar from EarthLink Inc. or elsewhere to block Web
sites known to engage in e-mail "phishing" scams.
Even AOL's free all-in-one package, which uses technology from McAfee
Inc. and others, is incomplete, said Joel Davidson, an AOL executive
vice president for products and technologies.
Last week, the Time Warner unit announced that subscribers who pay $26 a
month will get additional protections, such as a stronger firewall and
alerts when malicious software tries to send out a bank account or
credit card number. They'll even get more online storage for backup and
free insurance for identity theft and computer damage.
The free standalone products have even more limits.
Major e-mail providers scan messages for viruses automatically, but they
won't address threats that come from instant messaging or a rogue Web
site, or a virus already on the computer.
Trend Micro's free HouseCall virus scanner covers those situations, but
users must remember to periodically perform a check, and they won't be
automatically protected in the interim. Same goes for the free scan from
Microsoft; automated scanning comes with Windows Live OneCare, which
costs $50 a year for up to three computers and includes computer backup
and tuneup services.
And while Microsoft plans a more robust firewall in its upcoming Windows
Vista operating system, it's holding back enough to justify selling
The free Zone Alarm, meanwhile, will generate a pop-up warning when
newly installed software attempts to connect to the outside world. The
$40 Zone Alarm Pro will have a continually updated database of programs
that researchers know as good or bad, so pop-up prompts only come up in
"I don't think (the free version) reduces protection, but it is
definitely less convenient," said Laura Yecies, general manager of Check
Point's Zone Labs consumer division. "The user is essentially then
putting themselves in the role of making determinations."
The free and subscription versions of Grisoft Inc.'s anti-virus and
anti-spyware products are nearly identical, but paying customers can get
technical help from humans, instead of only the software's help files
and Web site documents.
And free software won't come with the ability for companies to easily
update all their computers remotely, an issue for larger organizations,
said Johannes B. Ullrich, chief research officer with the SANS Institute
Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and computer manufacturers distribute free
security products as well, but they are trial versions often with
features disabled, said Kraig Lane, Symantec Corp.'s manager for
consumer security products.
The six-month Symantec software bundled with Google, for instance, will
block known viruses but won't detect unknown ones, based on behavioral
patterns, in the hours before a software update can be developed and
distributed for new threats.
"We want to have a little extra value" for paying customers, Lane said.
Other restrictions are in the free software's license terms.
A standalone version of AOL's anti-virus software, from Kaspersky Lab,
comes with terms that permit AOL to send e-mail marketing messages,
while Sophos Inc. gives free software only if a person's employer or
school is already a paying customer.
Some security is better than no security, said Bruce Schneier, a
computer security expert with Counterpane Internet Security Inc. "I can
complain about them (the free products), but going out free to millions
and millions of users, you have to like that."
Yet it's not entirely clear how many users even know of the free
Bari Abdul, McAfee's vice president for consumer marketing, said
Internet users often configure their browsers to bypass home pages that
high-speed service providers use to promote free software.
AOL subscriber Gail Taylor, a teaching assistant at the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said she never knew AOL gave away security
But even after checking a number of free products at the request of The
Associated Press, she said she still couldn't decide which of the free
or fee offerings work best for her. She said she'd need to find time for
more research, leaving her computer largely unguarded for now.
Consumers who do install free products may be left with a false sense of
security, added David Luft, a senior vice president for security vendor
"Some of those limitations aren't always obvious to the end users until
they run into a problem they thought might be addressed," he said. "They
think they have something that's fully protecting them, when in reality
they don't protect in a way they might need."
On the Net:
AOL package: http://daol.aol.com/safetycenter
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