Internet security suites are big business. Trial versions packed full of features come with most new Windows computers. They typically include powerful two-way firewalls, phishing filters, and cookie-scanning technology. But you don’t really need all these features.
Internet security suites aren’t useless. Their antivirus protection is generally good, and they may have a few handy features. But they’re designed to sell you features you don’t really need.
Antivirus is the Most Important Feature
The most important feature in any Internet security suite is the antivirus. An antivirus helps protect you from malware, even malware that tries to sneak onto your machine through new security bugs in your browser or plug-ins, like Flash. Antiviruses aren’t perfect, but they are an important layer of protection for all Windows users. That’s why Microsoft included an antivirus with Windows 8.
Windows 8’s built-in antivirus and security features should be fine for most people. On earlier versions of Windows, you can install Microsoft Security Essentials to get the same protection. Even if you don’t want to use an antivirus program created by Microsoft, there are solid free options, including avast! and AVG.
You should install an antivirus on your Windows computer if you’re using an older version of Windows that didn’t come with one. However, other features included with Internet security suites are not so essential.
Internet security suites also include firewalls. Using a firewall is definitely a good idea, if only to shelter vulnerable Windows services from the web and disable access to them on public Wi-Fi networks.
Windows’ built-in firewall blocks applications that attempt to act as servers (incoming traffic) and asks you for permission. However, the Windows firewall doesn’t attempt to block outgoing traffic. You can actually use a third-party program to block outgoing traffic with the Windows Firewall or use the advanced interface to control the Windows Firewall. The Windows firewall is surprisingly capable.
If you want easy-to-use blocking of outgoing programs, you may want an Internet security suite. (Although there are free applications that may do this for you.) This isn’t a particularly important security feature – if you don’t trust an application, you shouldn’t run it on your computer at all, not just block it from accessing the Internet.
Full-featured Internet security suites also offer browser protection. They will block access to known phishing and malware websites, protecting you while you surf the web.
What they don’t tell you is that all browsers now come with phishing and malware protection. Whether you are using Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, or Safari, your browser includes built-in blocking of phishing and malware sites. You don’t need to purchase an Internet security suite to get these features.
Internet security suites are often much more sensitive to cookies than Microsoft’s security solution is. Some Internet security suites consider advertising-tracking cookies “spyware” and mark them as “threats” when you perform a scan.
Cookies are not a security risk — not even advertising cookies. Including them as a “threat” is a good way for the Internet security suite to demonstrate that it’s being useful and detecting things, but this doesn’t really improve your security.
If you do want to get rid of advertising-tracking cookies, you don’t need to pay for a suite. You can set your browser to automatically clear cookies when you close it or set it to only allow certain cookies. You don’t need any third-party software to scan your cookies for threats.
Antivirus applications also offer parental controls, but Windows includes parental controls already. Windows 8 includes full-featured parental controls that allow you to get reports on computer usage, block websites, and restrict usage to certain times. Windows 7 also includes its own parental controls.
Some Internet security suites may offer a few more features in their parental controls, but don’t underestimate the parental control options included with Windows.
Some Internet security suites offer browser extensions that integrate with your browser, displaying “trust” ratings for website links in Google search results and elsewhere. If you do consider this a useful feature, you can install a free browser extension like Web of Trust (WOT) and get this feature without the bloat.
Security suites may also include spam filters. However, most users will be using a web-based email system like Gmail that takes care of spam already This eliminates the need for a spam filter, even if you access your email using a desktop application.
Internet security suites can be useful, but they are packed with features you don’t necessarily need. These features can be useful to some people, but these programs are designed to upsell you. Most people would be fine without a full-featured Internet security suite. All you really need is an antivirus program, the security features built into Windows, and some common sense.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 02/14/13