Say what you will about AOL
, but the Internet service provider has just improved security for all of us using the Internet. Last Thursday, AOL announced its version 9.0 Security Edition
, becoming the first national Internet service provider to offer major-league antivirus and personal firewall subscriptions and program updates as part of its monthly service charge. For 23.4 million customers of AOL, that's very good news. Here's why the rest of us could benefit whether or not we use AOL:
A small majority of Windows boxes worldwide have antivirus protection, but not all users have updated their antivirus subscription or updated the programs themselves. Fewer Windows computers worldwide have personal firewalls installed. The actual hard number of machines varies from survey to survey, but this guesstimate works for our purposes here.
Say what you will about AOL, but the Internet service provider has just improved security for all of us using the Internet.
Every one of those unprotected computers linking to the Internet today is a potential breeding ground for new viruses, worms, and Internet attacks. We know this because security researchers routinely set up deliberately unprotected boxes, called honeypots,
on the Internet to trap the latest malware. In most cases, these boxes are infected with something within only a few hours. You can only imagine what an unprotected computer that's been connected to the Internet for years must look like.
Criminal hackers (crackers) love unprotected boxes. One way for spammers to avoid detection is to plant a Trojan horse on an unprotected Windows computer, then use that computer to launch thousands of e-mail messages onto the Internet. Recent viruses have been "seeded" the same way. Virus writers set up thousands of computers worldwide for the moment when they launch their latest virus; this both helps get the numbers of initial virus infections high enough for the antivirus vendors to sound a warning, and it helps spread the virus fast enough to evade any antivirus solutions, which can take up to several hours to create. So protecting the greatest number of computers worldwide reduces the threat of new viruses and Internet attacks.
A good number of current AOL subscribers have already put their own antivirus protection in place, but all AOL customers will now be able to download McAfee VirusScan Online, a customized version of the McAfee VirusScan product. With this download, they no longer have to remember to renew their antivirus subscriptions, nor do they have to worry about updates to the program itself. This set-it-and-forget-it feature should work for a number of people worldwide who look to AOL for convenience rather than doing it themselves.
Bottom line: The more people who are online and protected, the better the Internet is for all of us.
In addition, AOL offers a customized version of McAfee Personal Firewall Plus
, called McAfee Personal Firewall Express. I suspect that most of AOL's customers don't currently have a personal firewall installed, so, again, all regular subscribers should download this update as well. Annual subscriptions and program updates will be handled by AOL as part of the monthly service fee. And while I personally think the free version of ZoneAlarm
is much better, AOL customers will get free technical support for the McAfee product. New users will get both the antivirus and firewall protection when they install the AOL software.
Actually, EarthLink was first
But AOL wasn't the first to offer proactive security to its customer base. EarthLink has for years provided Norton AntiVirus, Norton Personal Firewall, and Norton Internet Security protection to its members as a premium service. The $4-per-month fee for each antivirus and firewall app is equivalent to the $48 retail price for each product--the same with the $6 a month fee for the Internet security suite--but EarthLink subscribers don't have to worry about renewing their subscriptions annually (currently $30 per year) or updating their software (currently $30 every other year or so); the online EarthLink service takes care of these tasks.
AOL just makes it all easier, by making McAfee's security products free to download and maintain as part of the basic AOL 9.0 Security Edition monthly service package.
Other features in AOL 9.0 Security Edition
For more sophisticated AOL customers, the company now offers a password fob, a device that fits on your keychain that generates a random password every 60 seconds. It's synced to the AOL server so that when you log in to AOL, you'll also need the random code. This great if you run a small business through AOL or generally don't want other members of your household to gain access to your account. The service is optional, however, and comes at a price: the fob itself costs $9.95, and the service runs between $1 and $4 extra per month, depending upon the number of accounts protected.
Bottom line: The more people who are online and protected, the better the Internet is for all of us. The AOL announcement isn't enough to encourage me to switch, but it's great for novices who want only to shop on eBay or send e-mail.
Should ISPs provide antivirus and firewall protection to their customers as part of the monthly fee? Why or why not? Talk back to me.