Security Tools: Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

(excerpted from

What is a firewall?

A firewall (or Internet firewall) helps make your computer invisible to online attackers and some malicious software such as viruses, worms, and Trojan horses. A firewall can also help prevent software on your computer from accessing the Internet to accept updates and modification without your permission. Firewalls come in both software and hardware form, but hardware firewalls are intended for use in addition to a software firewall.
It is important to have both a firewall and antivirus software turned on before you connect to the Internet. Read more about firewalls.

What is antivirus software?

Antivirus software helps protect your computer against specific viruses and related malicious software, such as worms and Trojan horses. Antivirus software must be kept up to date. These updates are generally available through a subscription from your antivirus vendor.

It is important to have both antivirus software and a firewall turned on before you connect to the Internet. Read more about viruses.

Do I need both a firewall and antivirus software?

Yes. A firewall helps stop hackers and viruses before they reach your computer, while antivirus software helps get rid of known viruses if they manage to bypass the firewall or if they’ve already infected your computer. A common way for viruses to get past a firewall is when you ignore its warning messages when you download software from the Internet or e-mail. Read more about how to help protect your computer against viruses.

What is antispyware software?

Antispyware software helps detect and remove spyware from your computer. “Spyware” (also known as “adware”) generally refers to software that is designed to monitor your activities on your computer. Spyware can produce unwanted pop-up advertising, collect personal information about you, or change the configuration of your computer to the spyware designer’s specifications. At its worst, spyware can enable criminals to disable your computer and steal your identity.

Antispyware software is an important tool to help you keep your computer running properly and free from intrusion. This kind of software also must be kept up to date. Updates are generally available through a subscription from your antispyware vendor. Read more about spyware.

Note: Some “spyware” actually helps desirable software to run as it’s intended, or enables some good software to be offered on a free-with-advertisements basis (such as many online e-mail programs). Most antispyware software allows you to customize your settings so you can enable or disable programs.

What is a spam filter?

Spam filters (sometimes broadly referred to as “e-mail filters”) evaluate incoming e-mail messages to determine if they contain elements that are commonly associated with unwanted or dangerous bulk mailing. If the filter determines that an e-mail message is suspicious, the message usually goes to a designated folder, and links and other code in it are disabled. Then you can evaluate the message more safely at your convenience. Read more about spam.

What is a phishing filter?

A phishing filter is usually a component of an e-mail filter or Internet toolbar. It evaluates incoming messages for signs that they are connected with phishing scams. Phishing scams use e-mail and Web sites that appear identical to those that belong to legitimate sources (such as financial or government institutions) but are actually clever hoaxes. If you click links in the e-mail or enter your user name, password, and other data into these Web sites, it gives scammers information they can use to defraud you or to steal your identity. Phishing filters can help detect links associated with known scam sites, and other suspicious indicators. Read more about the signs of a phishing scams in How can I tell if an e-mail message is fraudulent?

What are parental controls?

Parental controls can help you protect your children from inappropriate content, both on the Internet and in computer video games. You can choose separate levels of security for each child in your house, depending on his or her age and maturity level. Some video game systems include similar parental controls that can help you restrict your children’s ability to play inappropriate games and watch inappropriate DVD movies. Read more about parental controls.

Does my brand new computer come with these software security tools?

Maybe. When you buy a new computer, check your packing list to see if the manufacturer has included firewall, antivirus, or antispyware software in addition to the operating system (such as Microsoft Windows). E-mail software, such as Microsoft Outlook, or Web-based e-mail services such as Yahoo Mail, can come equipped with their own e-mail filters. Check your e-mail software provider to find out which filters are included with your program.

If your computer is missing security tools, they are available from a variety of vendors. You can investigate trial versions (available at little or no cost) and other options on the Security software downloads and trials page.