Do It Yourself: Build Your Own, Free Internet Security Suite
When you pay for a security suite, you’re basically just paying for the convenience of using multiple software of similar functionality in one complete package. You need not launch separate programs and use multiple dashboards anymore just to perform different tasks and stay secure. But if you can’t spend for your computer’s security, you can still achieve the same level of protection that a paid security suite offers by installing free software. Here’s what you need to do.
Install an Antivirus
First and foremost, you must have an antivirus. Windows already has one that’s free and preinstalled in your computer called Windows Defender, but independent lab tests show that it does an abysmal job at protecting computers from malware. Third-party alternatives offer much better protection while still costing you nothing. These are some of your options (in no particular order):
Avast Free Antivirus does a decent job at providing malware protection, offers home network and router security scanning, and has already many additional security tools you need for building a security suite: password manager, outdated software scanner and rescue disk. On the other hand, Avast takes quite some time to scan your entire computer, and some of the extra tools have limited functionality compared to standalone alternatives.
Panda Free Antivirus performs better than some paid security solutions in protecting your computer. Like Avast, it comes with free extras such as a process monitor, USB vaccination and rescue disk. Easy to use, it’s designed as install-and-forget software. On-demand, full-system scans can be slow, even on repeat scans.
AVG AntiVirus Free provides good malware protection with its fast scanning engine. It protects you from phishing websites that try to steal your login credentials. However, its habit of incessantly advertising its paid Pro version can be annoying.
Avira Free Antivirus has an excellent feature set despite being free. Its malware protection is as good as those of commercial antiviruses, but you might notice your computer slowing down when Avira scans for malware. Its user interface can be confusing to novice users.
Qihoo 360 Total Security 2016 makes use of five multiple scanners, including Avira and Bitdefender engines, to provide comprehensive protection. Its behavior-based detection, however, is unreliable and falsely reports legitimate programs as malware.
BitDefender Antivirus Free Edition 2016 is a silent antivirus, in that you can install it and forget it’s there. It makes security decisions for you and does not significantly slow down your computer while it scans for malware. Its malware protection is one of the best.
Install a Second-Opinion Malware Scanner
An antivirus may not be enough, especially when many pieces of malware can slip past detection and bury themselves deep into the system. You need to have another antimalware that can provide a second opinion about the state of your computer’s security, such as the following:
Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free features what it calls the Chameleon technology that helps the security software resist malware attempts to disable it. It’s also the same tech that allows it to install on infected computers. Malwarebytes is great at detecting and removing zero-day malware, and it also scans for adware and unwanted toolbars.
Microsoft Safety Scanner scans for the most prevalent PC threats. If you wish to keep using this scanner to complement your existing antivirus, you must re-download and reinstall it every 10 days.
Norton Power Eraser is quite aggressive in removing malware, so much so that it might corrupt safe, genuine files on your computer. Fortunately, the tool comes with a rollback feature to undo its actions. Use this tool as a last resort.
These malware scanners add a secondary layer of security without causing conflicts with your main antivirus. They often employ different methods of scanning to look for specific malware that few other security software can detect. You can use these scanners on demand whenever you have reason to believe that malware has infiltrated your computer despite your main antivirus insisting that everything is okay.
Some of these on-demand scanners are online services, providing detection and removal services without the need to install anything permanent on your computer. If you want to check a file for malware, you can upload it to Virus Total and receive a comprehensive result based on numerous scanning engines of multiple vendors.
Install Antimalware for USB devices
Skip this step if your free antivirus already performs USB drive scanning whenever you insert removable media into your computer. Although most malware make use of the internet to spread and infect millions of computers, some malware strains use the AutoRun feature of Windows as their primary infection vector. You need software that disables this feature not just on your computer but also on your USB drives and other devices.
Panda USB Vaccine and Bitdefender’s USB Immunizer prevent programs and malware on removable media from automatically executing on a computer. They do this by locking the AutoRun file of removable media so that malware can’t modify and exploit it to spread to computers.
Install a Firewall
A firewall is essentially a program that monitors network traffic. Like Defender for malware protection, Windows already comes with a built-in firewall to prevent unauthorized inbound communications to your computer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actively monitor and flag outbound communications by default. Imagine a piece of malware that has managed to enter your computer, and it’s uploading your personal data to a remote server. If you have a firewall that filters not just inbound but also outbound connections, you’d be able to stop such an upload.
Several free, third-party firewalls are available for download, and these solutions control traffic that’s coming in and out of your computer. Some automatically make decisions for you based on pre-determined security rules, while some lets you choose what to do every time.
One of the better firewall programs you can use for free is Comodo Free Firewall. It offers advanced features and cloud technology that already function well with no configurations needed. Its graphical user interface is simple enough so that novice users don’t feel intimidated. In addition, Comodo features a gamer mode that temporarily disables blocking, letting you play a video game without experiencing networking issues or receiving annoying alerts.
Another good option is ZoneAlarm Free Firewall. It manages network and internet access of every program. It ensures every port is in stealth mode to avoid discovery attempts by hackers and malware. Part of the free package also includes identity and data protection.
Alternately, you can learn how to make use of the advanced features of Windows Firewall or expand its capabilities using a third-party utility.
Install Browser Enhancements
Your web browser is your most important tool for looking up content from various websites as well as for seeking social relationships and exchanges online. It pays to install utilities and plug-ins that improve your browser’s security because so many malicious sites are out there trying to rip you off and ruin your online experience.
Improve your browser’s security using an add-on that tells you if a website you’re about to visit is safe or not. This is especially useful for when you’re browsing for information through search engines. Search results often display unfamiliar websites that potentially host malware.
Mcafee WebAdvisor stops you from downloading files that are known to be malicious. It steers you away from phishing sites that attempt to steal your usernames and passwords. It also scans search engine results and your social media feed, and it marks any links that are dangerous.
Web of Trust (WoT) works just like WebAdvisor, but it heavily relies on its user community to evaluate the safety and reputation of websites. WoT offers a thorough detail on why a site is marked safe or dangerous. It also blocks you from visiting websites that are known to have very poor trustworthiness, privacy, vendor reliability and so on.
You might also be interested in plugins that disable advertisements. Ad blockers keep your identity private from third-party scripts that gather your information to provide targeted ads. Ad blockers also help keep away malvertisements, or the use of online advertising to spread malware, and ads that display fake virus infection warnings.
Adblock Plus is one of the best options for blocking advertisements. It’s available as an add-on that works in every major platform and web browser. Adblock Plus can be configured to allow acceptable ads—the ones that don’t have an obtrusive behavior and ruin your browsing experience.
If you want your browsing activities to remain private, consider using the Disconnect browser add-on. It blocks third-party tracking cookies and malvertising. It lets you search using your favorite search engine without disclosing your search habits to any third party.
Using public Wi-Fi? Make sure your connection to websites are encrypted. Use HTTPS Everywhere to force websites into encrypting their pages, especially the ones that ask you to submit your login credentials. Better yet, use a VPN to create a secure connection to every website.
Install Parental Control Software for Your Children
You can’t always be around to keep an eye on your kids and whatever they’re doing online. When you’re away, you should rely on parental controls to keep your children safe from cyberbullying and cybercrime. Window 10’s built-in parental control feature surprisingly provides nearly everything you need to protect your kids. It lets you create separate accounts for each child, limit each account’s internet access to specific websites, specify which games and apps can be run, and set time limits. In addition, it lets you add money to your kids’ Microsoft accounts to let them buy age-appropriate games and content from the Windows Store. You can find your kids on the map by tracking their Windows 10 Mobile smartphones. Finally, you can choose to receive activity reports to your email.
If Windows 10’s parental controls somehow fail to impress, you can always use free, third-party options. Here are what we recommend:
K9 Web Protection offers an internet access scheduler, logs websites visited and has a tamper-resistant, browser-independent installation. However, it doesn’t give you the flexibility to configure the settings on a per-user basis.
Kidlogger is basically a keylogger that allows you to record the keystrokes of your kids. It also periodically takes a screenshot of the active program and records voice activity on the microphone. You can set it to send reports on a regular basis to your email.
MinorMonitor keeps an eye on your kids as they use Facebook and Twitter. It alerts you when your kids encounter online predators and cyber bullies.
Optimize Your Computer, and Maintain It
An internet security suite does so much more than just securing your identity and data. They now offer tools for tuning up your computer and keeping it in excellent order. These tools claim to keep your computer fast, efficient and reliable, but you can also accomplish the same results using built-in tools in Windows.
Disk Defragmenter or (also known as Optimize Drives in later versions of Windows) improves the performance of your hard drives, which gradually slow down because of file and free space fragmentation.
Disk Cleanup is a maintenance utility that deletes temporary and unnecessary files to free up your storage space. It also cleans up system files, including obsolete update files and dump files. If you need more storage space, remember to uninstall programs you no longer need through the Programs and Features at the Control Panel.
Speed up your computer’s boot time by disabling startup programs. In Windows 8 and 10, you can do this by launching the Task Manager and going to the Startup tab. The tab shows every app that launches automatically as Windows starts, along with the performance impact it makes. Right-click on a program that you want to disable, and click Disable. If you’re not sure about the function of an app, right-click it and click Search Online for more information.
Windows Memory Diagnostic tests your RAM for any defects and problems. If it does report errors after testing, that means your RAM stick has gone bad and needs replacement.
Disk Management allows you to handle tasks related to your drives. You can use it to change a drive letter, partition a drive, format a drive, resize a partition, and more.
You can launch any of the abovementioned built-in Windows tools by pressing Start, typing the name of the utility at the search box, and clicking the corresponding item in the search results. The tools already do wonders for your computer’s performance, but here are two third-party utilities you might find useful:
Unchecky is a small utility that helps you install an app without the unwanted extras, toolbars, and bundles.
CCleaner is another must-have utility. It functions just like the Disk Cleanup tool but covers more areas where junk files accumulate. It has tools to analyze file types that are using the most disk space and to find duplicate files you can safely delete. CCleaner also has a registry cleaner that deletes old, unnecessary registry entries, as well as a drive wiper that securely erases the contents or the free space of a drive.
Install Password Manager
Using a single password for every online account is a big mistake: if a hacker can infiltrate one of your accounts, there’s nothing to stop him from hacking your other accounts. But, you argue, remembering long, unique passwords for each of your online accounts is a hassle. Filling them in the same forms, again and again, is even more aggravating. That’s why security suites offer password managers for convenience.
A password manager is a secure solution for storing multiple passwords at a safe, digital vault. Only you have access to this vault. In addition, a password manager automatically fills the appropriate login credentials as you log into a website. The only thing you need to remember is a single password—the master password for the password manager. Several standalone password managers are available that you can use as part of your free internet security suite.
Dashlane works on all platforms, although you have to pay for its premium version if you want streamlined syncing across your devices. It offers automatic password change for over 500 websites and online services. It also alerts you when one of your online accounts has been compromised.
LastPass lets you generate and store long, strong passwords. It helps you determine which of your existing accounts have weak passwords that are easy to guess. Like Dashlane, a premium version is available that offers syncing between different types of devices as well as additional multifactor authentication.
KeePass is an open-source password manager. Power users will love it for its flexibility and customization options, but novice users will wish for a more user-friendly interface and automatic controls.
Install File Shredder
Sometimes, a security suite offers file shredders that let you securely erase files from your computer. Remember, emptying the Recycle Bin does not really delete the files but rather remove the reference to the file on the hard drive. The data is still intact and can be retrieved using recovery software. File shredders make sure deleted files are irrecoverable by overwriting the part of the drive that was previously occupied by the deleted file.
CCleaner already functions as a file shredder since it can wipe an entire drive (or just its free, unused space) in a secure manner. But wiping an entire drive can be time-consuming. Use a dedicated file shredder instead if you want to delete specific files and folders securely in a shorter amount of time.
Eraser lets you schedule when you want to delete the contents of a folder securely. You are free to choose an erasure method, each of which has a pre-set number of passes or the number of times the program overwrites the files. A single pass is usually enough, but you can use multiple passes if you’re really paranoid about someone trying to recover your data. Eraser also integrates with the right-click context menu, so you can securely erase files and folders with just the right-click of the mouse.
You have to prepare for when your computer’s storage suddenly fails. You need to have a backup of your most important files in case the original copies become corrupt, infected, or irrecoverable due to hard drive failure or even simple human error.
If you have Windows 10 and don’t want to download additional software, you have two built-in tools to use for making emergency copies of your files. The first option is File History, which saves multiple versions of files of certain folders (such as the libraries, the desktop, and your own selection) and stores them as a backup on a secondary drive. The second option, Backup and Restore, is for creating full system or image backups.
For third-party alternatives, here are some choices:
SyncBack Free offers several features, such as backup simulation and automatic backup schedules, and provides comprehensive instructions on how to perform backup tasks. However, its user interface may need some getting used to.
EaseUS Todo Backup Free provides many backup options, lets you clone entire drives and supports hard disks with up to 16-terabyte capacity. It lets you backup to several destinations, including a secondary hard drive, removable media, optical discs, network storage and cloud storage.
Macrium Reflect Free comes with a user-friendly interface, disk cloning and imaging, and backup scheduler. It doesn’t require a lot of system resources, allowing you to work on your PC while backup tasks are ongoing.
Consider using online cloud storage as well. Many free options provide deep integration with operating systems and office suites, as well as allow you to sync your files with multiple devices. Your choices are Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive and Dropbox, which gives you 5 gigabytes, 15 gigabytes and 2 gigabytes of free storage, respectively.
Prepare a Bootable Antivirus Rescue Disc
A rescue disc is for when your computer’s Windows installation has a persistent malware infection that can’t be removed using traditional antivirus or removal tools. It’s a special software that you use to boot your computer outside Windows and remove the malware infection. If the malware infection has severely damaged Windows, some rescue discs offer file manager and file recovery utilities to let you transfer your files to another drive.
Remote desktop management is one feature you can’t find in a paid security suite yet. Nevertheless, it’s an important component in your own suite of free products. By connecting to your desktop remotely, you can launch programs and perform tasks even when you’re away from your computer. If your Windows installation is a Pro, Business, Enterprise or Ultimate edition, you can use the built-in Remote Desktop Connection. Alternately, Chrome Remote Desktop and TeamViewer are great third-party choices.
Remote access is a double-edged sword. You benefit from it, but so can hackers if you’re not careful. Make sure you make the proper configurations for maximum security so that only you can use your computer through your remote access software.
Keep Your Software Updated
There’s one more tool to add to your arsenal of security software: the Personal Software Inspector (PSI) by Flexera Software. PSI monitors each and every app on your computer and automatically applies the latest updates to them whenever available. For apps it can’t update on its own, PSI provides thorough instructions on how you can update these apps manually.
As you all know, updates often come with security patches that fix vulnerabilities in the software, which is why it’s important to use the latest and up-to-date versions of every software program on your computer. Checking for updates for each app is a hassle, which is why you should let PSI do the hard work.