The story is different for teleworkers. Users working from home are taking out broadband subscriptions in droves, but guarding the always-on connection remains an afterthought, as a glance at last year's virus charts will confirm.
In January, Microsoft added its support to Personal Firewall Day, a vendor-neutral attempt to explain the importance of good security on the home computer. With most users learning the lesson only when they get burned, vendors wanting a piece of the home office security market have started urging companies to take the idea of securing remote users more seriously.
With the Fireball CyberProtection Suite, RedCannon Security has bundled a set of tools that offers protection against all the usual suspects with features to help the most illiterate of teleworkers. Protecting oneself from spam and restricting access to unsavory parts of the internet has become headline news, and buying a set of tools makes sense. The good news for the wider online environment is that such products put the building blocks of good security practice in place.
Good usability is crucial for home office audiences and Fireball scores reasonably well here. The software insists that users set some firewall rules before installation begins, with clear explanations and examples of what constitutes a trusted network. Unlike some competing products, Fireball does not automatically scan PCs for commonly used applications and set the appropriate level of protection.
Configuring the firewall simply requires switching a dial between low, medium and high levels of protection. Whenever unconfigured programs try to access the internet, Fireball asks the user to "allow" or "block" the attempt and invites them to set preferences. This is much like other personal firewalls.
Teleworkers and small office users interested in more advanced features and tighter control can define trusted networks and set specific access rights for their own applications. Those who spend some of their working time on the road can build IPsec VPNs using a wizard (users are advised to check the client's compatibility with their VPN gateway or firewall vendor).
Just as parents do not want their children exposed to adult spam and pop-up advertisements, systems administrators have to ensure that remote workers using corporate laptops do not contravene acceptable usage policies.
Fireball's privacy utility covers all the bases. Incoming and outgoing email addresses, domains, subjects or attachments can be filtered as appropriate. If content that breaks the rules is detected, it is quarantined in a folder to which only the administrator has access.
Creating user profiles enables systems administrators to make good use of parental controls to stop remote workers from accessing questionable websites. Also, as well as blocking access to obvious threats – such as pornography and gambling – the administrator can control which applications are available and even how long each user can spend connected to the internet. All activity is logged, so administrators can see what their remote workers do online.
The System Scan feature analyzes the PC's Windows OS and IE version and then links to Microsoft's security updates service to automatically download and install crucial patches. Users can get this free simply by signing up for updates directly on Microsoft's website, but it is one less thing to worry about for those who are unfamiliar with the internet.
Fireball's flaw is its presentation of instructions. Education is more than half the battle with people finding their way with technology.
The quick-start guide offers only the most cursory advice, and manufacturers must be aware of how consumers regard instructions. We would prefer to see vendors appeal to remote users with simple multimedia presentations that can be referred to if needed. A graphic demonstration of how to configure features would go a long way, especially as the full manual is available only online.
While there is a Macromedia presentation on the company's website, it merely highlights the benefits of each tool, instead of explaining how to use them. But the vendor has recently launched a basic online tutorial and FAQ list.
At nearly $50, Fireball is good value, but users will still have to pay for an anti-virus product as none is provided. Strictly speaking, Fireball cannot be called a complete solution to the average teleworker's computer security needs. For this reason, it suffers in comparison with Norton's Personal Firewall 2004.
Adding anti-virus to what is an impressive array of tools and maintaining a reasonable price is a challenge, but might be the best way to persuade home users to protect their computers and themselves.
: Almost comprehensive set of tools to protect the computer and users alike and that offers good value for money.
: No anti-virus or automatic configuration of commonly used internet programs.
: It is an average product and users require a separate anti-virus product for full protection.