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       By Bob and Joy Schwabach
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July 2004, Week 3 -- No Thanks, We're Just Browsing

 

 

 

 

   A note of rising hysteria is climbing into the high tech news these days. It's the fear of spyware, cookies, trackers, key loggers and other agents of doom.

   We could say that things are getting bad. But the truth is, things were already bad; now they're getting much worse. Fight back is our motto, so today we look at ways to thwart the evil-doers and make the world safe for democracy, etc. It's beginning to sound like a comic book, but we're serious.

 

   The primary problem seems to be the use of Internet Explorer as a web browser, which is roughly what 95 percent of the world uses. Those who want to put viruses, worms and outright criminal software onto you computer usually do so by exploiting certain weaknesses in Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Microsoft itself continually puts out patches to correct these vulnerabilities but sometimes the patches themselves contain new vulnerabilities. And so it goes. It's enough to irritate a saint, at least if he's online.

 

   A recent article in Slate, Microsoft's online magazine, advocated that users dump Internet Explorer and switch to some other browser. We have taken them at their word; the two most popular alternatives are "Mozilla" and "Opera."

 

Mozilla

 

   First of all it should be pointed out that Mozilla and Opera are probably no less vulnerable to hack attacks than Internet Explorer. But since they are used by only a small percentage of users browsing the web, there's less incentive for attackers to work out routines for exploiting them. In short, it's not cost effective. Or as the military guys like to say: you don't get enough bang for the buck.

 

   Mozilla, which sounds like Godzilla, and that's intentional, is free. The bad news is you can't use the "mail" button to collect email from Netscape or Hotmail. A few sites also do not come up if you're using Mozilla. Everything else is good news.

 

   You can collect email from Netscape and Hotmail if you go to their web sites. You can collect all other email directly through Mozilla and the browser will not allow viruses or worms to execute. This is also true with AOL, by the way.

 

   A feature we particularly like is the way it creates "tabs." Tabs are instant action buttons. Each tab is a path to a particular web site; type in a site's address and from then you simply click the tab to go there. You can have many websites open, each with their own tab.

 

   Mozilla has a new cut-down version called "Firefox," which blocks Active X and Visual Basic scripts. This prevents certain kinds of attacks but also blocks some web sites. The two versions are currently being downloaded at the rate of 200,000 copies a day. This pace has already attracted some hack attacks and Mozilla recently issued a browser patch to correct a vulnerability. Find Mozilla and Firefox at www.mozilla.org  or www.download.com.

 

Opera

   Opera is a powerful browser from Scandinavia. It is free in a version with ads, or $39 without. Opera has the same tab feature we liked so much in Mozilla and a lot more; many users claim it is faster as well.

   When you set up tabs in Opera, they carry not only the web site name but most have a tiny icon for that site as well. The tab list appears along the top of the screen. On the left side of the screen is a panel of icons, with names like "chat," "links," "notes," "bookmarks," "search," etc.

 

   "Notes" lets you copy text from any web site and add notes and commentary of your own. It also saves the address of the site. If you click on "links," a panel comes up listing all the web links on the site you are currently visiting, plus all the links on sites you visited in the current session. Normally, all tabs and links are wiped out when you close Opera and you start fresh the next time. But it you wish, you can select "save session" and everything will be there to start again when you re-open Opera.

 

   You can use Opera from the keyboard alone, without a mouse. A lot of people prefer the keyboard, and that includes ourselves, who as long-time writers are much faster on the keys. You can open any program on your computer while still within Opera and you can write and send email without leaving the browser. Opera is available at www.opera.com.

 

Staying with Internet Explorer

   If, for reasons of familiarity or email access, you want to stay with Microsoft's Internet Explorer, fixes are available from another source.

   The magic bullet is called "Secure IE," and it lets you browse the web with near total security. It distinguishes between the good "Active X" and the bad, and blocks the bad. On the good list is the Windows Media Player, QuickTime and Macromedia Flash. On the bad side are other Active X controls some web sites want to install on your computer. If you want to feel really secure you can block all Active X, which is what we often do.

 

   An advantage of Secure IE is that unlike Mozilla and Opera, all web sites can be reached. It also isolates so-called toolbars. Google, for example, suggests you "download our toolbar" for immediate access to Google searches. This sounds like a convenient thing to do, and most of the time it is, but it also provides a hacker potential access to the files on your computer. Secure IE substitutes its own version of the Google toolbar.

 

   Secure IE comes in versions from $30 to $50. Check out the version differences at their web site: www.winferno.com.

 

NOTE: Readers can search more than three years of columns at the "On Computers" web site: www.oncomp.com. You can e-mail Bob Schwabach at bobschwab@aol.com and Joy Schwabach at joydee@oncomp.com.