Burning Question: How Much Computer Security Is Enough?
Put down that money order and step away from the Internet, sir. You could blow your kid's college fund on computer security doodads: biometric password protectors, remotely erasable hard drives, GPS tracking — every day, there's some new and irresistible offering for the paranoid. But what do you really need to protect your computer? Less than you think.
The gospel is familiar: An antivirus program paired with anti-spyware/malware measures will shield your PC from just about anything. In fact, the marketing of those products is so good that security apps are about the only software people still expect to pay for. But the best stuff doesn't cost a dime. Programs like AVG and Ad-Aware are free, and they won't hit you up for upgrades like the big security suites.
Those guardians are fine for Grandma's Gateway, but the truly savvy eschew them altogether. Even the most well-meaning program bogs down your box. And it's not hard to dodge infection; just abide by the basic tenets of Internet common sense: Don't click on mysterious email attachments, don't bother with the free pr0n, Ch3@p Vi@gr@, and Nigerian millions, and never open .exe files. Email is still one of the biggest infection vectors, so be cautious and use a good webmail service like Gmail, which automatically scans your messages. Don't leave your computer online when you're not on it. Beware of anything that immediately asks for personal information. Don't reuse passwords.
On the meatspace side, secure your Wi-Fi network and, most important, get a backup drive. Backup may not be the first item on your Web-safety list, but it should be; infection is no big deal if you can just wipe your machine clean. As PC-security demigod Bruce Schneier says, "Any countermeasures are almost optional once you have good backups."
Hardware geeks will notice a glaring omission from this list: encrypted hard drives. That's because only a few really add security, and only a few people really need them. "There's a lot of snake oil," says Lance James, who designs anti-phishing software. "Some of it works, but at that level, you're mostly addressing pedophiles." The most secure drives have onboard microprocessors that scramble data before writing it, but if you forget your password, you're screwed — there's absolutely no way to access your information. However, you're probably more than fine using encryption software like Private Disk.
But before you even go that far, take a step back. If you're really convinced you need ironclad PC security — and you don't work for a credit card company — you may have bigger issues than some puny computer virus. Freak.