Keeping Hackers at Bay with Zone Alarm from the September 2000 Actrix Newsletter

by Jeremy Fairbrass

A few points before Jeremy begins....

  • You will understand this article better if you read "Hacking 101" by Dean Moor first.
  • Zone Alarm is a popular program that seems to run smoothly and effectively, but even such a program as this will not be able to stop a truly knowledgeable hacker who wants to get at you in particular.
  • While Zone Alarm is popular and effective, it cannot be officially endorsed by Actrix. Nor can we take any responsibility for what does or doesn't happen if you decide to install and run it.
  • Zone Alarm is easy to install and use, even for complete novices, the only bad things I have ever heard about it have to do with un-installing it. If you decide to install Zone Alarm, you do so entirely at your own risk; and that applies to uninstalling it too. We cannot support un-installation problems from our help desk.

-Ed.

Zone Alarm Command Centre


As the internet becomes more and more widespread, there is increasing concern about the risk of "hackers" being able to get inside people's computers through their internet connection, and steal their passwords, read sensitive information from their hard drives, and even take control of the computer itself. (The word "hack" simply means to break into someone else's computer without their permission, usually through the internet from a remote location). While it is quite a skill for a person to hack into someone else's computer like that, it is nonetheless not impossible to do, especially if you use special hacking software.

So what can be done to prevent your computer from the risk of hackers? Probably the best thing that anyone can do, is to install a program on their computer called a "firewall". A firewall is a piece of software that runs on your computer and blocks all the "ports" of that computer from the outside world, only allowing connections to be made to those ports from sources that you approve of. In reality it's a lot more technical than that, but it would take me more space than I'm allowed to fully explain how they work!

Firewalls are primarily recommended for computers that have permanent connections to the internet - such as JetStream or cable - because these connections are the ones that are most at risk from hackers. For the average person connecting on a dial-up modem, a firewall isn't as important - and there are some other tweaks and tricks that you can do to your computer to make it harder to hack without the use of a firewall, if you have a good knowledge of network protocols and messing around in your Control Panel (see http://grc.com/su-fixit.htm and http://grc.com/su-bondage.htm for more info). However, it can never hurt to use a firewall anyway!

Many of the firewalls available on the internet cost money, and they have different features and pros and cons. But probably one of the best firewalls around at the moment is a program called ZoneAlarm. It's designed especially for the personal home computer, it has great features, it's relatively simple to set up, and best of all it's free! When it's running on your computer, it will let you know every time a program on your computer tries to access the internet, and it will allow you to prevent that program from doing so, if you wish. It will also alert you every time another computer or server on the internet tries to make a connection to your computer. That "other computer or server" could very well be a hacker trying to see if your computer is vulnerable - although it could also be a legitimate connection attempt made by a trustworthy server such as a search engine you're using, or even one of the Actrix servers. In my own experience, I've found that when I use a search engine to do a search, that engine will make a connection back to my computer - for what purpose I'm not sure - but ZoneAlarm will then alert me of the fact, even though what the search engine is doing is quite normal.

However simply alerting you that a remote computer is trying to connect to you isn't enough. The best thing that a firewall does is that it makes the "ports" on your computer appear to the outside world as though they don't exist. Which means that as far as any potential hacker is concerned, your computer might as well be disconnected from the internet - it just isn't there for him to see!

ZoneAlarm also has the ability to stop certain types of viruses from coming into your Inbox, although it should never be used as a replacement for a normal anti-virus program.

Zone Alarm's Warning Panel ZoneAlarm now has a "big brother" program called ZoneAlarm Pro, which has all the great features of ZoneAlarm, plus a whole heap more. The "Pro" version isn't free, but in my opinion it's definitely worth its price for the amount of new features it brings! Perhaps the only complaint I can make about ZoneAlarm (including the Pro version) is that you can't password-protect the options or settings, which means that other users of your computer (eg. the kids) could potentially disable it, or could allow an unsafe program to access the internet without knowing what they were doing. However the benefits of this firewall over the other firewalls available far outweigh this complaint!

You can read more about ZoneAlarm at their website, http://www.zonelabs.com, and download the free version from http://www.zonelabs.com/zafreedownload.htm. It works on all versions of Windows (95, 98, NT, 2K, and ME). There's an excellent tool at https://grc.com/x/ne.dll?bh0bkyd2 that you can use to see how well ZoneAlarm works, too - when you hit the "Probe My Ports" button on that page, it will deliberately scan the ports on your computer to see if any are vulnerable or "open", and it will tell you the results (don't worry, this process is quite safe!).

You should try this before installing ZoneAlarm, and then try it again after ZoneAlarm is running on your computer, and see the difference in the results!

A lot of the information regarding ports, hacking, firewalls and so on can be quite technical, so installing a program like this by yourself is probably not recommended if you find the terms used here to be quite unfamiliar! I'd recommend having a read through the links at the bottom half of the page at https://grc.com/x/ne.dll?bh0bkyd2 if you want to learn more about this sort of thing, and you might also want to get the help of a more "technically-minded" friend to install and set up something like ZoneAlarm, if it's still hard to grasp! While I do recommend ZoneAlarm, it's not something that Actrix can officially support.

Happy surfing!

-  Jeremy