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General discussion

Free vs. paid security software

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) CNET staff/forum admin / May 25, 2007 2:56 AM PDT

My paid security suite is up for renewal soon, and I'm not too sure as to whether I should renew it or not--because I hear about the many free antivirus, spyware, and firewall programs available out there. Is what I'm paying for going to do a better job of protecting my PC? I'm hesitant to believe that free software will do as good of job as a paid one or am I wrong for this belief? After all, I've always been taught that nothing is free. Please help me, as I really want to know the facts about paid versus free security programs? What benefits do I gain or lose by going free? How do these types of freely distributed security program companies make their money anyway? There has to be a catch and I would like an
answer. Any help in demystifying this will help me tremendously with my decision in the next security software I pay for or receive for free. I love this newsletter, and the people who are always so helpful. Thank you!

--Submitted by Jasmine H.

Answer voted most helpful by our members:

Actually, in this case you can get something for "nothing"

In most cases your assumption would be correct. With most types of products you can expect that the paid version will be better than the freebies, but this is an exception.

If you pay for your antivirus and anti-spyware protection you tend to get some nice features, but you usually don't get better protection and the reason is really simple. Viruses, trojans, worms, spyware, adware, and all the other malicious garbage that can attack your computer isn't just a threat to you-- it threatens everyone on the internet. This includes big companies and governments. It is in everyone's best interests to control these attacks, but that can't happen if the malicious code can hide in private computer systems because the owner can't or won't pay for the software needed to protect the machine. Therefore a number of private companies have committed themselves to providing free versions of their software for those who can't or won't pay money for it. A lot of this software is superior quality.

There is a catch, but it isn't any different than if you were buying the software. Whether you pay for the protection or get it free, make absolutely certain that you know what you are getting. Many companies also put out bad programs, and some of them actually cause the problems they are supposed to be detecting. There is no way to avoid the need to check a product out before using it, unfortunately. Many people have purchased or downloaded software believing that they were protecting their computers, only to be infected with viruses or spyware as a result. Never respond to a pop up that offers to "scan" your computer for free. This is one tactic used to sell inferior or even malicious products. Always check out the reviews of the product before allowing it to access your computer.

It is, fortunately, very easy to check out a product before purchasing or downloading it. CNET has a lot of information. Check out, and don't forget to type the product's name into your favorite search engine and see what the reviews on other sites say. You can get a lot of information in a short period of time.

You should run one (and only one) antivirus product on your computer. You should run one (and only one) software firewall on your computer, and the one that comes with Windows is not the best choice. You should run 3 or 4 anti-spyware programs, but not in "real time." Run only the one you trust the most constantly, then run the others manually right after updating them (at least once a week). Be sure to disconnect from the internet while running your scans manually. This is also a good time to run a full antivirus scan and any other utilities that need to be run, such as a defrag program.

If you are still deciding which products to choose, and you are willing to pay for the products, I urge you to support those companies that offer free versions of their software. The paid versions aren't going to protect any better, but you should get some nicer features. Any company that will offer quality software for free deserves your business. They are doing their part to ensure that we can all access the internet safely, and we should appreciate them for that effort.

Also, don't despise some of the free software in other categories. Much of it is high quality. The open source movement is one reason. Also, some of the software is put out by individuals who create a program for themselves and then just want to give others access to it. Some of it is software put out by companies that also sell paid software, hoping that you will like the product and come to them for other software you might need. Take a look at it. You might find something you need for free or at little cost. You will probably find something that is just cool. Don't go wild! After all, there is a lot of junk out there as well, but do take a look and check the reviews. You will be pleasantly surprised at what you find.


--Submitted by 4Denise

If you have any additional advice or recommendations for Jasmine, let's hear them. Click on the "Reply" link to post. Please be detailed as possible in your answer and list all options available. Thanks!
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Paid versus Free
by Starsh1p / May 25, 2007 11:30 AM PDT

I have 5 seperate pc's running in my home and they all run with free anti virus, free firewall and free anti spyware. I have luckily never fallen prey to any of the problems so many of my friends have come to me with. I can't say that the free programs I use are "better" than the paid for versions but they have always worked without problems for me, of course I run behind a firewalled router and I never open any suspect attachments or foolishly ignore warnings from my security programs. Most important also is to keep windows and the security programs updated. I guess I will continue with the free versions until I find a reason not to. B.T.W. I use Avgfree antivirus, Zonealarm firewall and have tried many free spyware detectors, some better than others but I have no favorites. My ISP provides a free security suite from McAfee and I have used it in the past but I like to go with the free stuff whenever I can mostly because they seem to be smaller and less taxing on the resources.

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by udrtrat / May 25, 2007 11:53 AM PDT

Im a fairly new puter user and have yet to buy any protection. So far there have been no problems. the puter store put in free AVG7.5 and it is the only virus protection Ive got. They told me no more than one virus protect as they may conflict if more are used. I use several freebie spywares as Im told its best to have more than one of them as they dont all do the same things. I use Spybot-Search and Destroy. It works well. Also Ad Aware SE. another freebie thats good. Win Patrol does a good job keeping the baddies out too. And also Windows Defender. Oh yes and spyware fighter. these can mostly be gotten from CNET and other free sites. I also got McAfee Site Advisor for free and if its green its an OK site. yellow or red and I just dont go in no matter what. Works Great. I dont have broadband so Ive also gotten myself a thingy called Star downloader. works good also. All for free, the lot of it. And when one runs out, just find another using McAffee to tell me if they are safe. Hope this does you some good. Its taken me quite a while to sort all this stuff out for myself but it has been worth it. Regards. any ??? see me at and Ill help if I can.

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RE: Liz's Note on McAfee Site Advisor
by urquattro83 / June 1, 2007 8:42 PM PDT
In reply to: Freebies

Liz - McAfee Site Advisor's green, yellow or red color is only an indicator to let you know whether or not submitting your contact information on that site will lead to spam e-mail in your inbox. It has no relationship to your virus or spyware vulnerability.

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I agree
by bunnieslanding / June 1, 2007 11:14 PM PDT
In reply to: Freebies

I use AVG free, spy-bot free, Ad-Aware SE and spyware blaster. The guy who repaired my computer said this is all I need. They all work great. I have always paid for Virus Protection and it never caught anything like all these do. I will continue to use the free items. He also said when my subscription runs out for McAfee, to just get rid of it. One point, when you do remove something from your add-remove program, always do a search with the item name and see if there are left over folders. I always find some and then delete them. That way I am sure everything is gone. Hope this helps.

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by diloren / June 2, 2007 3:11 AM PDT
In reply to: I agree


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I agree AVG, Adaware Lavasoft, Spybot keep me virus free
by tmeister311 / June 2, 2007 11:56 AM PDT
In reply to: I agree

These three free programs have kept me virus free for 5 yrs. I also service many computers as a side business, and I recommend thest to all my customers. So far no complaints. T.

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Free is for me!!
by baledor / June 2, 2007 12:00 PM PDT
In reply to: I agree

After trying some of the paid ones I decided to use AVG anti virus and it has kept many bugs and viruses out of my computers. AVG developers did a great job!!

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Spy Bot
by filmfogger / June 2, 2007 3:29 PM PDT
In reply to: Freebies

I do not understand how to clear up my files with Spyware Bot Search & Destroy. It appears to me to use it u need to buy. Am I missing something here? I use AVG Free.

My server seems to have a good pop up blocker and it doesn't pop up and ask you if you noticed what a good job it is doing, as some do. I do not get unwanted ads from anywhere usually except PC Mag when I am in their site. Filmfogger

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SpywareBot and Spybot -different programs!
by xie / June 3, 2007 10:47 AM PDT
In reply to: Spy Bot

Spybot Search and Destroy is the one you want, NOT SpywareBot! Use, and don't fall prey to similar sounding anti-malware programs your might find on a search engine, which are often full of adware themselves! Good luck getting rid of Spyware Bot. It isn't easy and not intuitive to get rid of this program.

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SpywareBot and Spybot- different programs?
by Bridgegirl / June 9, 2007 12:17 AM PDT

When I go in to find and click on spybot, it comes up as spywarebot but you are saying they aren't the same. So where do I go to find Spybot without it coming up as SpywareBot?

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go to
by tchristoff / June 11, 2007 12:25 AM PDT

You can go to to get the real spybot. What's scary is, the first link (and it's a sponsored link) on Google is for spywarebot. The second is also for spywarebot, just reworded. Same results on and msn. The non-sponsored links were better.

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by TCALLDAY / June 4, 2007 9:26 AM PDT
In reply to: Spy Bot

Do a search on any engine and Spyware Bot comes back as spyware and or a virus. I had it. My son or one of his friends infested one of my PC's with it. I spent about an hour finding a free program that has to be run in DOS mode to remove it. The Pop ups were never ending to buy/extort 29.95 for a fraudulent spyware program. Good luck getting rid of it. Spybot is a great program i use all the time.

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system recovery on windows xp pro
by azsanderford / May 25, 2007 11:56 AM PDT

I have a laptop that my dad gave me from the company that he works for was giving away. there is nothing wrong with the laptop except that It's password protected by control alt delete to log on. Since I do not know the computers password I can not get into it. I do not have a windows xp pro disk nor do I really want one either. I was wondering how can I get into the system with out a recovery disk and without having to purchase one of these computer password retreaval systems. Any help would be great.

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You can get an unlock disk
by franasia / June 1, 2007 10:52 PM PDT

You can get an unlock disk, CD or floppy, from eBay. These disks allow you to read passwords in clear text. Hope it helps.

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Bypassing a Windows password
by Double Deuce / June 2, 2007 2:44 AM PDT

Boot in SAFE MODE and see if you can log on as the administrator. If the administrator does not have password you will be able to log on as the administrator and delete the password for that user profile. Once on as the administrator just click on Start -> Control Panel -> User Accounts -> "name of user account" -> change or delete password. At that point it will be self explanatory. Then restart your computer and log onto the user account.

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Do it ethically
by dmont / June 3, 2007 10:40 PM PDT

Since this is your dad's computer from work...he should have the password for log on. Your dad should be able to log on and remove the password. If it wasn't his computer but an associates at work have your dad take the laptop back to work and the associate can remove the password.

To everyone who responded with ways to "crack' the password, you may be helping someone socially engineer a way to break into another person's computer. Some times in our efforts to be helpful we forget that there may be an ethical issue we are careful about help you offer to others.

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GNU\Linux an option
by OttifantSir / June 6, 2007 9:08 PM PDT

The GNU\Linux community says that to install any flavour\distro on a computer and use it, you have to be one of two things: Inexperienced Windows user, meaning you can use the programs, but not good at altering settings. You usually get help for that. Or, you must be a Windows technician. If you fall into the middle group, like me, where you are helping friends out with minor problems, it may not be a good idea to use GNU\Linux.

As with any other program, there are benefits and advantages to using GNU\Linux. You may have to spend a little time getting all your hardware to work, but a forum like LinuxQuestions or UbuntuForums are extremely helpful. Unless you delve deep into the configuration files, you will most likely get an answer within the day. It's also a question of what you want to do with your computer. Some distros are better at some things than others. Personally, I like Ubuntu, but OpenSUSE are a viable option for the not-so-tech-savvy.
The benefits are many. Where Windows (mostly) "just works" when you power on your computer, GNU\Linux needs some learning. However, GNU\Linux are generally more stable (crashes less frequently) than Windows. It's usually less "hungry" for RAM and processing power too. I ran Ubuntu GNU\Linux on a seven year old laptop, which had ONE great benefit over others that were just as old or newer: It had plenty of RAM for its generation. I used this with USB-Wireless, and never used my other computer for anything but storage and time-consuming tasks like converting video files.

Another "advantage" (some may say it's a nuisance) is that you will learn to know your computer better.

If you feel comfortable with Windows, but would like a more stable Operating System, you might want to check out Linspire and Freespire. They are made to look as much like Windows as possible, at the cost of some philosophies of the Free Software Foundation (headed by Richard Stallman).

Unless you simply wish to unlock this Windows version, which may require some cleaning up, I must tell you to seek advice elsewhere. If you want to start from scratch, setting up the computer the way you want to, get a Windows CD somewhere, or borrow a friend's computer and get a GNU\Linux distro. DistroWatch is a good place to start.

Hopefully I have been helpful. If you wish to consult more, contact me at ottifantsir (at)

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Virus and security software -free or fee?
by kaporter12 / May 25, 2007 11:59 AM PDT

I have always purchased this software until recently. I now am using Avast and it is great and free. I read through the web site, read the customer testimonials and gained the confidence to give it a try. You will gain the information you need to make a decision by visiting a few sites and doing reserach. They will tell you how they make money and urge you to upgrade IF you need the added security. I do not. Give it a whirl!

Kevin Porter

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Security Suites
by happygirlt / May 25, 2007 12:13 PM PDT

Try the free to try suites until you find one that you really like. That way you have nothing invested until you want to invest in it. The free ones sometimes don't always offer everything on them but you can get a general feel of the program. So save your money for now and invest it in one that you are totally happy with.

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Freeware Yes
by beechkomr / May 25, 2007 12:13 PM PDT

I have used FREE AVG from Grisoft for years and never have had a problem with virus attacks. The company is constantly improving the program. Recently, I purchased a new computer preloaded with the Security Norton Suite, a free 3 month subscription.. Ha. I immediately unloaded it, and replaced it with AVG. It is working quite well with Vista even. And, yes I am even running FREE Spybot - search and destroy and Ad-ware SE personal for just a long. Thanks to those willing to help the poor and weary.

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I do just the same!
by lewist / June 1, 2007 4:34 PM PDT
In reply to: Freeware Yes

Hi beechkomr! I use exactly the same software and find it works really well. Additionally there is Housecall which I am trying for the first time in a couple of years because it now runs in Firefox. My sons swear by it as an effective way of keeping their machines clean, without anything else installed. I prefer a belt and braces approach.

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by wiguel / May 25, 2007 12:15 PM PDT

When I first started (Windows 3.?) budget was tight, etc. Bought into the Norton hype and had more problems than I needed to deal with.

Now, after 15+ years I have found that the following do the job quite well:

Spybot & AdAware, both of which have free versions and upgrades

WinPatrol - a little free program that I found on TuDogs. This
program STOPS programs from being installed until you
give permission.

AVG Antivirus

RegScrub - another excellent free program from TuDogs (an alternate
is EasyCleaner

My protocol is to run all, excepting Win Patrol at least once a week or after any particularly long surfing session. Be sure to check for updates each time you run these programs.

Mike, Oregon

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by ellis feigenbaum / May 25, 2007 12:18 PM PDT

I use the free version of avg at home, it comes well recommended by cnet.
Most of the companies that supply free anti virus software, generally have a corporate division that sells a similar software to the corporate world and provide the free version as a service to home users.
the free version of avg is slightly stripped down, but to the general homeuser , that sets their anti virus , paid or free to update once a day you will probably not notice much difference.
It scans incoming and outgoing email, has a resident sheild and will scan as often as you set it up to scan.If you happen to hear about a major virus attack during the day, you can always manually update .

For a business enviroment I like the avg stuff as well and in addition i like symantec corporate edition , it doesnt seem to be as bloated as the security suites they sell to home users.
As i see it , the antivrus vendors are trying to be all things to all people, but the downside is they are causing more problems than they solve by overloading the software to cover all bases. It is illogical that a pc would need extra ram to run security software ,but that is in effect what happens. Then because the software slows the pc down people turn it off, therby negating the whole purpose.

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Paid Vs. Free Security, or How Much is Peace of Mind Worth?
by nextcase / May 25, 2007 12:20 PM PDT

Dear Jasmine H.: I have had experience with paid internet anti-virus programs/suites that caused my computer to crash, requiring a re-install which took nearly three DAYS to bring back to where it was before the crash (Norton SystemWorks). The manufacturer said their program was INCOMPATIBLE with my computer configuration. This after I had used their previous edition without incident. To avoid any lawsuits, they paid me back for ALL of the products I EVER purchased from them. I switched to Grisoft's AVG anti-virus, and used it without incident (it's free), and used ZoneLabs free firewall, with only an occasional required restart, but no hackers to worry about. Then, McAfee came out with their all-inclusive Internet Security Suite, including anti-virus, anti-spam, firewall, and privacy shield. The edition I purchased was FREE after rebate. I also got Computer Associates (CA) version of the same thing, again free after rebate. I found the McAfee MUCH more user friendly, and the McAfee quarantined a Trojan horse, while the CA Suite MISSED IT! If, as I have my current set up here, you use MSN, or AOL, chances are you won't need ANY additional material, free or paid. On the off-chance that those ISP's fail to catch something, a paid, and then FREE AFTER REBATE all-in-one security package lets me sleep like a baby. Staple's and TigerDirect have these on sale now and then, with rebates attached. Oh, is GOOD! Good luck to you. Dr. Bernie, aka NextCase.

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Free anti-virus is garbage
by Wasn't Me / June 5, 2007 1:01 PM PDT

I am really skeptical at some of the replies here that don't run any anti virus s/w. I have had situations when running a clean install of Windows (any version) and once connected to the net, I and others have been attacked.

I do agree that the free firewalls are excellent, especially Zone Alarm . The spyware programs are good but you definitely need at least 4.

In my experience, the free anti-virus programs are all garbage. I do a lot of P2P and I get at least 80% of junk mail or spam in my mailbox everyday. The free anti-virus programs have always failed me in detecting malware in real-time .

If you go online to browse common and popular sites and use a web based email account then you will do just fine with a free AV program. If you have people that send you lots of email or have a lot of spam in your email inbox you need a paid anti-virus program, such as Kaspersky, F- Secure or Norton. There are various sites on the net that do reviews of anti-virus programs and rate them including the the number of viruses caught and all the paid ones do substantially better than the freebies. It's really a no brainer which is better in detecting malware.

Bottom line, despite what others say, there is nothing free in life and everything has a price attached to it, at least when it comes to anti-virus software.

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Answer for Jasmine H: Are free security products any good?
by Watzman / May 25, 2007 12:32 PM PDT

First of all, don?t ?Auto-Renew? or renew at all. Even if you have, for example, Norton, and you want to stay with Norton, the best way to do this is to let it expire, uninstall it, then go out and buy a new copy of Norton (or a competitor, if you want to switch) at retail and install it from scratch.

Why? Several reasons:

1. It?s cheaper. These products are often on sale, in fact they are often on sale ?FREE? (ok, that usually means ?Free after rebate?, but if you the rebate exercise you should get the rebate).

2. You don?t want to give these firms your credit card number. There was an article on this recently, but just about ***ALL**** of these firms, once they get your credit card number, will ?auto renew? every year and charge it to your credit card more or less until your credit card expires or hell freezes over, whichever comes first. The permission to do this is buried in the online fine print that you agree to if you renew online. While there are procedures for getting out of this, none of them is easy, and some of them are almost impossible to either find or execute. So the best way is simply never give them a credit card for online signup. [Brian Livingston?s Windows Secrets newsletter (which I highly recommend) for May 17th had an extensive article on this matter; Microsoft, Symantec and McAfee are all guilty, and what they are doing is really unconscionable. See ]

Now, as to your question: There are a few good free products. The best free AV product is probably Grisoft AVG. They have a paid product as well, and they both try to push you into the paid product and make the free product hard to find, but as of now, it?s still available (there have been rumblings that it might disappear). The free edition is available at Do note that this is JUST Anti-Virus, it?s not a ?full service suite?, e.g. you will need anti-spyware separately, and optionally a firewall separately if you want one (personally, I don?t recommend using any add-on firewall for most people: they cause as many problems as they solve).

As for anti-spyware, Ad-aware still has a free edition, and Microsoft ?Windows Defender? is still free. I find the combination of these two items to be more than adequate.

My own recommendation is as follows:

1. A good Anti-Virus package of your choice. My recommendations are Grisoft, Norton, Kaspersky or Zone Alarm. And, again, if you are patient, you can usually get the PAID products Free, or at least ?Free after rebate?.

2. Microsoft Windows Defender and Ad-Aware.

3. The Windows firewall, but nothing further

4. ***VERY IMPORTANT*** ### ALWAYS ### operate from behind a hardware router that does NAT (network address translation ... they all do it). Use a router even if you have no need for additional ports and no plans or need to share your internet connection.

What you gain from the paid products (which, again, might be FREE) are integration, convenience and support (none of the free products have support). But as to the matter of whether or not the free products can do an adequate job, the answer is that yes, SOME of them can.

Barry Watzman

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I have to add one more comment to my post ....
by Watzman / June 1, 2007 1:41 PM PDT

I have to add one more comment to my post; while some people don't like it, IE7 is FAR more secure than IE6, or in SOME ways (but not all ways) than FireFox 2 (which is what I use). In particular, it has by far the best "anti-phising" measures of any current web browser, and that's important because none of any of the other tools do ANYTHING about a "phishing" attack, and falling victim to one of these is one of the most serious things that can happen. A Phishing attack doesn't infect your computer, it makes you (personally) a victim of identity theft, which is actually far more serious.

If you think you don't like IE7, click on the "Tools" menu (right side near the top) and put a check on the "menu bar" item. It makes IE7 a lot more friendly.

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Windows Firewall is enough?
by warpete / June 1, 2007 3:14 PM PDT

Are you really serious--or uninformed? Windows Firewall does absolutely nothing to stop malicious programs from sending your personal info OUT of your PC. It may protect dangerous stuff from getting in--but not from getting out. You need the free ZoneAlarm or any other GOOD firewall to handle this. Personally, I use COMODO Personal Firewall. It's free and protects my PC from any info getting OUT--without my permission.

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I understand your point by stick by my comments
by Watzman / June 1, 2007 11:56 PM PDT

I do understand that the Windows firewall does not do anything regarding outgoing messages. But I stick by my point; I have found, and many others have found, that more sophisticated firewalls cause as many problems for most users as they solve. I personally continue to feel that the Windows firewall and operating behind a hardware router are enough for most people. Of course, it's a personal choice, and if someone wants more, that is there perrogative.

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tis a folly to use the windows firewall
by ccrazed / June 2, 2007 1:42 AM PDT

The fact is that the windows firewall does not stop malicious programs sending out information as has been stated. If you are operating behind a hardware firewall this information will still get transmitted. If you don't mind your details being sent out or your machine being used as a DoS slave etc then thats fine and your choice, but please don't advise people to do the same. The windows firewall is as effective a firewall as a piece of paper is to fire

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