By ANICK JESDANUN, AP Internet Writer
Microsoft gives away a security firewall with its latest operating
system. Many high-speed Internet service providers offer free anti-virus
protection for subscribers. And several Web sites distribute free
toolbars to warn of Web scams.
AOL even recently made a package of basic security tools -- anti-virus,
anti-spyware and firewall programs -- available for free to anyone, not
just paying subscribers.
Despite all the free protection, primarily for Windows computers,
leading security vendors are moving forward with plans to start
selling their annual slate of security products this fall.
Why bother, when so much is available elsewhere at no cost?
"I absolutely don't argue that the highly tech-savvy consumer will and
can search the Web for freeware and knock out 90, maybe 95 percent of
the risk," said Lane Bess, Trend Micro Inc.'s general manager for
consumer products. "That's not the largest (base of) consumers out
Most people, he said, would rather install a package -- for $50 in Trend
Micro's case -- that does everything.
Free often means cobbling a package together:
-- Taking the basic firewall that comes with the Service Pack 2
version of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP, or getting a stronger one
like Check Point Software Technologies Ltd.'s Zone Alarm to monitor
and block outbound traffic as well;
-- Adding anti-virus protection from a high-speed Internet provider
like Comcast Corp. or Time Warner Inc.'s Road Runner;
-- Obtaining one or more free spyware removal tools like Spybot
Search & Destroy;
-- Installing a toolbar from EarthLink Inc. or elsewhere to block Web
sites known to engage in e-mail "phishing" scams.
Even AOL's free all-in-one package, which uses technology from McAfee
Inc. and others, is incomplete, said Joel Davidson, an AOL executive
vice president for products and technologies.
Last week, the Time Warner unit announced that subscribers who pay $26
a month will get additional protections, such as a stronger firewall
and alerts when malicious software tries to send out a bank account or
credit card number. They'll even get more online storage for backup
and free insurance for identity theft and computer damage.
The free standalone products have even more limits.
Major e-mail providers scan messages for viruses automatically, but
they won't address threats that come from instant messaging or a rogue
Web site, or a virus already on the computer.
Trend Micro's free HouseCall virus scanner covers those situations,
but users must remember to periodically perform a check, and they
won't be automatically protected in the interim. Same goes for the
free scan from Microsoft; automated scanning comes with Windows Live
OneCare, which costs $50 a year for up to three computers and includes
computer backup and tuneup services.
And while Microsoft plans a more robust firewall in its upcoming
Windows Vista operating system, it's holding back enough to justify
selling OneCare separately.
The free Zone Alarm, meanwhile, will generate a pop-up warning when
newly installed software attempts to connect to the outside world. The
$40 Zone Alarm Pro will have a continually updated database of
programs that researchers know as good or bad, so pop-up prompts only
come up in rare cases.
"I don't think (the free version) reduces protection, but it is
definitely less convenient," said Laura Yecies, general manager of
Check Point's Zone Labs consumer division. "The user is essentially
then putting themselves in the role of making determinations."
The free and subscription versions of Grisoft Inc.'s anti-virus and
anti-spyware products are nearly identical, but paying customers can
get technical help from humans, instead of only the software's help
files and Web site documents.
And free software won't come with the ability for companies to easily
update all their computers remotely, an issue for larger
organizations, said Johannes B. Ullrich, chief research officer with
the SANS Institute security group.
Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq:YHOO - news) and computer
manufacturers distribute free security products as well, but they are
trial versions often with features disabled, said Kraig Lane, Symantec
Corp.'s manager for consumer security products.
The six-month Symantec software bundled with Google, for instance,
will block known viruses but won't detect unknown ones, based on
behavioral patterns, in the hours before a software update can be
developed and distributed for new threats.
"We want to have a little extra value" for paying customers, Lane
Other restrictions are in the free software's license terms.
A standalone version of AOL's anti-virus software, from Kaspersky Lab,
comes with terms that permit AOL to send e-mail marketing messages,
while Sophos Inc. gives free software only if a person's employer or
school is already a paying customer.
Some security is better than no security, said Bruce Schneier, a
computer security expert with Counterpane Internet Security Inc. "I
can complain about them (the free products), but going out free to
millions and millions of users, you have to like that."
Yet it's not entirely clear how many users even know of the free
Bari Abdul, McAfee's vice president for consumer marketing, said
Internet users often configure their browsers to bypass home pages
that high-speed service providers use to promote free software.
AOL subscriber Gail Taylor, a teaching assistant at the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said she never knew AOL gave away
But even after checking a number of free products at the request of
The Associated Press, she said she still couldn't decide which of the
free or fee offerings work best for her. She said she'd need to find
time for more research, leaving her computer largely unguarded for
Consumers who do install free products may be left with a false sense
of security, added David Luft, a senior vice president for security
vendor CA Inc.
"Some of those limitations aren't always obvious to the end users
until they run into a problem they thought might be addressed," he
said. "They think they have something that's fully protecting them,
when in reality they don't protect in a way they might need."
On the Net:
AOL package: http://daol.aol.com/safetycenter
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
NOTE: For more telecom/internet/networking/computer news from the
daily media, check out our feature 'Telecom Digest Extra' each day at
http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra/more-news.html . Hundreds of new
articles daily. And, discuss this and other topics in our forum at
For more news and headlines each day from Associated Press, please go