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Information over Internet is sent in "packets" of data. These packets travel from a source machine to a destination machine -- which could be two feet away or two continents away. Each packet of data contains IP address and port number of originating machine.
The firewall software inspects every packet of data that arrives at computer -- BEFORE that data is allowed entry into system and before it connects with an "open" port. The beauty of a firewall lies in its ability to be selective about what it accepts and what it blocks.
The firewall has ability to refuse any suspect data. If incoming data is ignored and not allowed in, that port will effectively disappear on Internet and hackers cannot find it or connect through it. In other words, instead of receiving a signal that a port is open, hackers receive nothing back and have no way of connecting.
Several firewall applications are available to small business operator or home computer user. Before changing firewalls or installing one for first time, it's wise to check out comparative testing that has been done on these applications.
Persons already running a firewall could test it's effectiveness by trying Shields and Ports test available at Gibson's Research Corporation (GRC) web site, or by downloading and running LeakTest software available on site at http://www.grc.com.
GRC's Steve Gibson has some surprising test results posted in conjunction with LeakTest's personal firewall scoreboard at http://grc.com/lt/scoreboard.htm.
The best-rated one is free. Not only did Zone Lab's Zone Alarm (http://www.zonelabs.com) score best in Gibson's testing, but firewall has been recognized for excellence by CNET, PC World, PC Magazine and Home Office Computing.
Other well-known firewalls include McAfee firewall at www.mcafee.com, Sygate Personal FW at www.sygate.com, Symantec/Norton at www.symantec.com and Tiny Personal FW at www.tinysoftware.com
Now, bad news.
A firewall protects you from open ports, but it does not protect you from data coming and going through ports that you allow. Malicious code can invade your system from email attachments or by visiting a hostile web site. And remember -- even well trusted web sites can suddenly be hostile if hackers have added malicious code without site administrator's knowledge.
Test your security against malicious code at Finjan Software's web site. Many of you will be dismayed to find that your supposedly secure system is vulnerable. http://www.finjan.com
Malicious code blocking software such as Finjan's Surf n' Guard analyzes incoming data and decides whether code could be harmful. ZDNet recommends that code-blocking software be used in addition to firewall and your antivirus software.
Too Late? What if you think you've been hacked? Call your computer guru to help, or check out information at sites like HackFix. http://www.hackfix.org
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June Campbell is a self-employed writer. Her work has appeared in many international publications. Visit her web site for guides to writing business proposals, joint venture contracts and more.