How to Secure Your Computer: Maxim #2 stressed the importance of using a NAT router to make your network “invisible” to criminal hackers and other Internet riffraff. This is excellent protection against inbound malicious connections, but it does nothing to block outbound connections originated on the local network. The router won’t stop back-door trojans, adware, spyware, and the like from “phoning home” with your sensitive information. This behavior is by design; if outbound connections were blocked, you’d never be able to browse the Web. The problem is that if you inadvertently get infected by a mistaken click or a cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability, you’re in trouble. You may not even know you’ve been infected–I’ve seen bot-infected machines running up-to-date antivirus software happily spewing spam emails by the thousands.
One of the most important pieces of software for secure computing is a properly configured, proven software firewall. Don’t rely only on Windows XP’s built-in firewall–it blocks inbound attacks only (see Is Microsoft’s Firewall Secure?) and has flaws of its own (see Windows Firewall flaw may hide open ports). While Vista’s firewall does offer outbound filtering, it isn’t much better (see Analysis: New Windows Vista Firewall Fails on Outbound Security for more information).
My favorite personal firewalls for secure computing are the Comodo Personal Firewall (free), and the Sunbelt Kerio Personal Firewall (full-featured for 30 days, then runs free in limited-feature mode, $19.95/yr for full version). I’m currently testing the ESET Smart Security suite and from what I’m seeing, this may be one to recommend to your non-savvy home users; it’s non-intrusive in automatic mode, allowing you to surf freely without those annoying do-you-really-want-to-do-this popups.