The lure of free software

Free software can be a wonderful thing.  For just about any task you need to do on your computer, someone has written a program to do it and is willing to allow you to use it without monetary compensation.  Some of these programs are classified as open source which means that not only can you use them, but if you know how, you can reprogram to suit your needs.  What’s not to like about that?

The problem comes when you decide you want something and now it’s time to go looking but you’re not necessarily sure where to go.  Your first inclination may be to bring up your favorite search engine and and look for it.  This can be good, but you may end up with software which has a hidden cost attached to it.

Popular categories such as screensavers and fonts will frequently come with hidden extras.  Often called spyware, these extras will then monitor your every move on your computer, report back to a server somewhere, and display pop-up ads based on what you’re doing.  Install several different such things from various locations and you may have a huge mess of many programs sitting in the background watching what you’re doing slowing it down as a result.  The scary part is that you don’t know what information they’re gathering for their reports.

Protecting yourself from these is better than trying to remove them afterward.  Your anti-virus program (you are running one, right?) will catch some, but not all of them, as you try to download them.  However, you don’t have to wait to download something to have an idea as to how well you can trust it.

Enter SiteAdvisor.  Originally created as an independent plug-in for Internet Explorer and Firefox, it is now owned by McAfee, a maker of security software.  McAfee has still kept it as a free option but they also include it with their security suites.

The plug-in will put a status button on your browser to help you identify potentially bad sites. They use a color coded system to let you know how risky a site is going to be (green for low to no risk, yellow for medium, red for high, and gray for not yet rated).  When you’re on a site, the button will change color appropriately.  If you’re searching for something, SiteAdvisor integrates with popular search engines like Google and Yahoo! to let you know before clicking if one of the sites is a problem.  You’ll have icons with the same color coding scheme next to the links in a search result.

As of this writing, SiteAdvisor is available for Internet Explorer and Firefox.  I’d like to see it available for Safari as well, but Mac users currently have very little to worry about in the realm of spyware or viruses.  If you’re using some other browser such as Opera I would expect you already have an idea how to avoid bad things or you had a well-meaning friend or relative who set it up for you.

So, use SiteAdvisor, keep your security software up to date, and if you want a cool free screensaver that won’t be a problem, I recommend Electric Sheep.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions.

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