Tweaking Windows XP SP2Fine-tune its settings to improve security.
Scott Spanbauer is a PC World contributing editor and author of the monthly Internet Tips column.
Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 2 is devoted to beefing up Internet security. It doesn't thoroughly shield you from attacks, but it's worth installing for its firewall improvements, Internet Explorer pop-up blocking, and security-configuration changes. Once you've installed it, you'll probably want to tweak some of SP2's new settings.
SP2's most noticeable change to Windows XP is its introduction of a new Security Center Control Panel applet. Security Center provides a single location where you can view the status of the Windows Firewall (formerly known as Internet Connection Firewall) and of Windows' Automatic Updates service. The utility also tracks whether you have an antivirus program installed, running, and updated.
If any of these three key security tools has been disabled or is less than fully functional, Security Center changes their corresponding status lights from green to either red or amber. The program also displays a warning icon in the system tray. A red light means that you should probably take steps to beef up security in the indicated area. An amber light signifies a service that is only partly enabled, or that a third-party product handles.
Tweak the Firewall
Windows Firewall, which is enabled by default, blocks incoming worms, like Blaster, that try to enter your PC through a network connection, but it can't stop malicious apps that are already on your PC from making outgoing connections. You get no protection from viruses, worms, Trojan horses, and spyware that sneak onto your computer via your Web browser, e-mail, or instant-messaging program. To handle these, I recommend using a bidirectional third-party firewall such as Zone Labs' free ZoneAlarm.
Furthermore, once you've installed a bidirectional firewall, I recommend disabling the Windows Firewall altogether. Occasionally, firewalls obstruct an application you're trying to use over a network connection--and there's nothing more frustrating than spending a half hour tweaking, disabling, and even uninstalling a firewall, only to discover that the other firewall was the culprit. To disable the Windows Firewall in the Security Center, choose Start, Control Panel and click Security Center. Then click the Windows Firewall link at the bottom of the dialog box, check Off (not recommended) in the next window, and click OK.
Alas, Windows may not recognize the third-party firewall installed on your PC. (It didn't see my copy of Sygate Personal Firewall, for example.) In such cases, Windows displays the security-warning icon in the system tray. That's no big deal, except that when other security lapses crop up, you might ignore them. To disable the firewall security warning in the Security Center, click Recommendations in the Firewall pane, check 'I have a firewall solution that I'll monitor myself,' and click OK. Windows will then switch your firewall status to amber, and stop pestering you with firewall warnings in the system tray.
If Windows fails to recognize your antivirus program, you can easily disable Security Center false alarms: Click Recommendations in the Antivirus Protection pane, check 'I have an antivirus program that I'll monitor myself,' and click OK.
The ability to block pop-up browser windows, besides being convenient, can protect you from browser hijacking (where an unscrupulous Web site installs itself as your home page or runs ActiveX programs). SP2 adds this long-needed feature to Internet Explore and activates it by default. (On a related note, SP2 also disables Windows' Messenger service, which used to let spammers and other miscreants pop up message windows on your Internet-connected PC.)
Though Internet Explorer's newfound pop-up-blocking prowess is generally a positive thing, it can cause problems when you visit Web sites that use subsidiary, pop-up-style windows for logging in, completing surveys, displaying videos, or performing other special tasks. If you discover that your favorite site doesn't work as expected after you've installed SP2, don't get too upset.
First, to test whether IE's pop-up blocker is responsible, disable it by choosing Tools, Pop-up Blocker, Turn off Pop-up Blocker. If that tactic solves the problem, you can instruct IE not to block pop-ups from that one site. To do so, first copy the site's URL from IE's Address field, then choose Tools, Pop-up Blocker, Pop-up Blocker Settings, paste the address into the 'Address of Web site to allow' field, and click Add.
SP2 introduces a related security feature in the Outlook Express e-mail program. To block the tiny invisible images called Web bugs that sites use to identify you online, Outlook Express by default now blocks downloads of any external images referenced in HTML messages. If you receive one of those slick-looking e-mail newsletters, it may not look so slick after you've installed SP2.
To re-enable the display of these image links in e-mail messages (and risk having your e-mail newsletter-reading habits monitored by the newsletter's publisher), choose Tools, Options, Security, uncheck 'Block images and other external content in HTML e-mail,' and click OK.