written by: William Busse•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 5/20/2011
Firewall and spyware protection are two of the most important tools available to combat the increasing threats from viruses, adware, spyware and malware. This article explains the difference between a firewall and an anti-spyware program and how each protects a network’s security system.
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How Information Becomes Vulnerable
The growing interactive nature of the internet, intranets, and extranets has facilitated extraordinary advances in information sharing. Unfortunately, as ever increasing amounts of data flow through the various components of the online environment, individual computers and entire networks become at risk for malicious attacks.
In order to facilitate faster online response times, data is broken down into packets. This avoids bottlenecks as the packets can be delayed or interrupted to accommodate other traffic as conditions warrant. Once a connection is secured, packets are sent and received by both computers through their respective internet service providers. It is through this process that unwanted viruses, adware and spyware are unwittingly acquired.
Among a number of security components such as antivirus and anti-malware software, a robust firewall and vigorous anti-spyware removal tool will provide substantial protection from unwanted intrusions. This raises the question of what is the difference between firewall and spyware protection.
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Essentially, a firewall is a hardware or software based security protocol placed in front of an internet connected network or computer.
Firewalls are designed to scrutinize inbound and outbound data packets and limit access based on a pre-determined set of criteria established by the user. In this way, firewalls search for unusual domain names, suspicious words and IP addresses while blocking atypical FTP initiatives and proxy service routing. Many firewalls can also serve as a gateway for identifying and granting or denying access to predefined applications. As an active component of a computer or network security structure, firewalls work in real time to expose threats before they are placed into the system.
Software based packet filters are the most common form of firewall. A proxy server based firewall is the strongest method of active protection that conceals the network entirely from inbound data while routing the packets through an intermediary.
Image Credit: Art Explosion
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Spyware and Adware
Adware is a legitimate method of generating revenue by advertisers and software providers. Often packaged with free software or “freeware," adware often includes sponsored advertisements that continually pop up while the software is running. If the user is aware of this arrangement prior to downloading the program, and the ads stop running when the program disengages, adware is a reasonable means to generate revenue for the use of the program without charging the end user.
Regrettably, some advertisers and others with pure malicious intent are not so scrupulous. Tracking software that is installed on a computer or network without the knowledge of the user is referred to as spyware. These software programs remain embedded in the system using the internet connection to send information on usage and statistical data to the spyware originator. Spyware can be used to manipulate advertisements, change homepages and even transmit sensitive information on credit card numbers, email addresses and passwords, all without the user’s knowledge.
Since most malicious spyware is acquired unwittingly by the user, the active firewall does not identify the download as a threat and will not interfere with the transfer. This is why it is critical to have anti-spyware protection. These programs run in the background and monitor links, any efforts to change home page parameters and attempts to automatically install software. When any type of program routine begins to transmit unauthorized data or exhibits unusual behavior, the anti-spyware program will intervene. Additionally, spyware programs make periodic inspections of the registry and hard drive to detect unwanted system infections.
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Avoiding Spyware, Malware and Virus Attacks
Despite vigorous diligence by firewall and antispyware program developers, attempts to find a way to invade, manipulate and steal vital data from the user’s computer are ongoing. Therefore it is critical to take some simple precautions to avoid system intrusion. Among these include the following:
Avoid Clicking on Pop Up Ads: Many spyware and malware programs are embedded in pop up advertisements. Use a pop up blocker to filter out these nuisances.
Avoid File Sharing Programs: These peer-to-peer environments used for sharing MP3’s and video content are fertile grounds for embedded viruses and spyware
Do Not Open Unidentified Email Attachments: No matter how tempting, if the source is unidentifiable, do not open an attachment or follow a link. It is especially important to scrutinize emails that supposedly originate from a bank or a high profile company.
Never Disable Firewall Protection: This leaves the system completely defenseless.
Use an Anti-Spyware Tool that Monitors in Real Time: Rather than just scan capabilities, real time monitoring detects and blocks threats before they are embedded in the system. Many free spyware programs do not have real time monitoring.
Be Wary of “Free" Software: Many programs that are free contain adware. Make sure to read the licensing agreement before downloading.
Image Credit: Art Explosion
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Unwanted intrusion into a network or computer is an invasion of privacy and can lead to identity theft or worse. It is important to understand what is the difference between firewall and spyware protection, and make certain both of these important tools are installed and up to date.
Approaching the internet with the proper security programs and a degree of caution can help avoid potentially costly and catastrophic system compromises. Anyone who is unaware of the level of protection they currently have on their network and computer should immediately verify that the firewall and spyware systems are engaged and functioning correctly.