The prophylactic Mac in a Windows world

Reader Christopher Hosford’s wife faces the stark reality of hosting Windows on her Macintosh. In her stead, he writes:

My wife just purchased a new iMac with Parallels Desktop. She uses Mac OS X about 90 percent of the time, but boots into Windows for the very few work tasks that require it (AutoCad, MS Money). But I’m still unclear on how the Windows side of the iMac should be protected from viruses, spyware, etc. My wife never uses a browser on the Windows side, but the computer is connected to the Internet 24/7. Is Windows still vulnerable in this situation, even if she doesn’t use it for Internet work? What protection do you recommend for Windows in this situation?

If this were 1994 I might say, “Hey, don’t worry about it. As long as you don’t touch the Web, download email, or load a single external file into your computer, you’re fine.” But it’s the 21st century and we’ve crossed over the line where our computing is strictly local. Try this: Without running a browser or email application, perform some normal tasks on your computer and keep an eye on the activity light of your DSL or cable modem. Yep, some of that blinking indicates that your computer and others of its ilk are carrying on conversations across the ether. Nearly all of them are innocent, but there’s likely a few of them that bode no good.

Let’s face it, these days, any computer—yes, even one running Windows—that doesn’t have access to the Web is only half a computer. While your wife may swear that she’s not tempted to launch a browser while running Windows, there’s likely to come a time when she’ll want/need to.

Also, your mention of your wife’s work tasks should set off alarms. Where do these files come from and how are they shared? Email and browsers are just a couple of avenues for infection. A burned CD can just as easily carry a virus.

The sad fact is that Windows on a Mac is Windows—it’s vulnerable to the same cooties that can plague PCs. With that in mind, it pays to behave like a real Windows user and take precautions. Fortunately, paying to behave like a Windows user need not cost you a nickel.

I have a living, breathing Windows PC sitting next to my Mac and I’ve installed the following free utilities on it.

ZoneAlarm Although you can pay for a version that offers more bells and whistles, the free version of ZoneAlarm is an easy-to-use firewall that blocks incoming threats (and pops up “Are you sure you want to allow such and such application to talk over the Internet?” messages before allowing applications or utilities to make an Internet connection). I rarely use a Web browser on my PC yet ZoneAlarm has logged over 105,000 attempts to access my computer (granted, the majority of them are innocent).

I used to run the Windows version of Symantec’s Norton SystemWorks on my PC but I let the subscription lapse because there are enough free anti-virus options that I was willing to live without Norton’s advanced features. The free option I chose was Grisoft’s AVG Anti-Virus. By going the cheap route you’re not getting virus updates as fast as you would with the High Priced Spread nor can you tweak the thing within an inch of its life, but for my limited Windows use, it’s plenty good enough.

For dealing with spyware I take yet another cheapskate route with Lavasoft’s free Ad-Aware SE Personal. It works only after the fact—you’ve got spyware/adware and you want to get rid of it. The pay-for options—Webroot’s $30 Spy Sweeper, for example—can block spyware and adware before they have a chance to touch your computer.

I’m happy to say that my Windows PC has been without cooties for quite some time thanks to these minimal precautions. I’m sure I could do better and I pray that readers who are savvier about Windows than I am (and, believe me, that shouldn’t be hard) will pipe up and recommend their favorite Windows prophylactics.

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