Choosing from the hundreds of types of computer security and privacy software can be a daunting task. It’s hard to know what types of security software you need, and which software is a waste of money.
Do you need to buy computer security software or will free security programs work just fine? That’s the kind of question that our team of computer security experts aims to answer here on ComputerPrivacy.org.
Recommended Software to Secure Your Computer & Protect Your Online Privacy
What type of software do I need to protect my privacy and secure my computer?
For most people, we recommend the following basic setup.
- Invest in a hardware firewall, or at a minimum, make sure your computer’s software firewall is enabled
- Install and run a good antivirus/malware program
- Use a secure VPN with good encryption to protect your privacy online
If you want to take things a step further, you can use an anonymous browser to add an extra layer of Internet privacy. And those with a lot of sensitive data may want to invest in encryption software for specific files or your entire hard drive.
Next, we’ll cover the differences in the most popular types of security software. You’ll learn how these computer security and privacy programs work and how you can use them to prevent computer security threats.
Firewalls, Antivirus, & VPNs OH MY!
Firewalls, antivirus, and VPNs are easy to confuse.
Yet they are very different. Each serves its own function within your full security suite.
The right combination of firewalls, antivirus, and VPN may be the perfect security solution for you. The wrong combination could mean a waste of money, or worse. Your circumstances determine what makes sense.
It helps to learn the difference between firewalls, antivirus, and VPNs, which puts you one step closer to your online security goals – whatever they may be.
Along the way, we’ll answer all of your questions.
Obviously, this is a huge topic, so we’ll break it down into bite-sized pieces. In the end, you’ll have a much better understanding of what you actually need.
Let’s start with the basics.
Firewall vs. Antivirus vs. VPN FAQs
First, simple questions with simple answers:
What is the difference between a firewall and an antivirus?
A firewall controls network access. An antivirus detects and removes system threats. A well-configured firewall blocks malicious players from interacting with your system. An antivirus blocks or removes malicious programs that get through the firewall. Together, they protect against incoming system threats.
What is the difference between a firewall and VPN?
A firewall controls network access. A VPN protects your online activity. Firewalls helps manage which parties can connect to your system. VPNs secure your data, regardless of network access. Together, they help shield your traffic history from prying eyes. They also have many functions unrelated to each other.
What is the difference between an antivirus and VPN?
An antivirus detects and removes system threats. A VPN protects your online activity. Antiviruses are mostly concerned with malware, while VPNs are primarily concerned with privacy and anonymity.
The difference between firewalls, antivirus, and VPNs (made easy)
Next, a simplified example:
Consider your computer as a mailbox. The Internet is the global mail system. Your Internet service provider is your default mail carrier.
Every one of these mailboxes sends and receives data whenever it is connected to the Internet. Each device you own functions as its own mailbox. This includes your mobile phone, smart TV, and smart fridge.
Everything connected to the Internet is a mailbox.
Unfortunately, this mail system isn’t regulated like the one in the real world.
Some major (and scary) differences:
- Your Internet service provider can often see every detail of the “mail” you send and receive. That’s all of your online activity. Your ISP is also allowed by law to resell your information.
- Other parties can also access your data. Network infrastructure is inherently vulnerable. There is a variety of ways to spy on Internet traffic. It can also be stolen at the destination.
- This online mail system is fraught with malicious players. Sure, there are plenty of Internet “snoops.” But what’s worse – people send computer-bombs in the mail every single day. Daily malware infections and website hacks number in the 100,000s.
Online security tools fight these threats.
Network firewalls manage who you can send mail to and receive it from. Some are like a bouncer, checking credentials at the door. Others are more like airport security – there are only a few ways in, and you have to go through a full-body scan. Most systems use both methods.
Antivirus software scans your mailbox, looking for bombs and online spy tools. They quarantine and remove threats they recognize. In this example, the best antivirus is like a futuristic seek-and-destroy robot. The worst is like a hunting dog with a stuffy nose.
VPN services are companies you can hire to carry your mail for you. Unlike your ISP, good VPNs protect your activity from snoops. Some go so far as to burn their own records daily. Here, VPNs are simply private mail companies. The best are like armored trucks.
Despite the modern nature of this analogy, the Internet is something like the “Wild Wild West.” Mail trains take on stowaways and get robbed every single day. Be careful what information you exchange, and how.
To bring it home, let’s come back to the real world.
The Internet is a massive global network.
What does this mean?
The Internet isn’t “in the Cloud,” as you may think. The vast majority of the Internet’s data is held in various data centers around the world. The information is stored on specialized computers called servers and transmitted via underground cable.
ISPs are the predominant force that carries information across the Internet. This information is broken into “packets.”
Consumer devices send information to and from these servers constantly.
When you message Fred on Facebook, it doesn’t go to Fred’s device. Instead, it goes to Facebook’s servers. These servers hold the message. The push notification Fred receives is simply an alert notifying him of a relevant update to Facebook’s servers.
In this way, the ISP bounces information from consumer devices to hosting servers and back again.
Users interact mostly with servers. Servers interact with both users and other servers. Again, these interactions are transmitted across massive underground cable networks.
A LAN, or local area network, is a network within a single building or connecting buildings in close proximity. Such networks are usually run by a single organization. They allow for private communication between devices on the network.
A WAN, or wide area network, is a network that connects multiple geographic locations. They may be made up of several LANs or smaller WANs. The Internet is essentially a globe-spanning WAN, connecting many major networks together.
Firewalls, antivirus, and VPNs have roles to play in networks of all sizes.
The real answer to the question “What is the difference between firewalls, antivirus, and VPNs?” is:
Firewalls, antivirus software, and VPNs play related roles in system security, yet they are fundamentally different technologies. Firewalls can block threats before they enter a system; antivirus cleans up malicious programs that get through; VPNs add levels of privacy and anonymity to network communications.
The next question becomes:
Do I need a firewall, antivirus, AND VPN?
Simple question. Trickyanswer.
There is no “magic bullet” network security technology.
Even these three tools are made up of separate technologies themselves. Moreover, new threats emerge shortly after new technology. Security companies work diligently to combat these threats – many offer full security suites for this purpose.
For some, these tools can be a good investment.
In most cases, though, specialized companies produce better products. This is certainly the case in the online security industry.
In addition, your security needs are critical. Different firewall, antivirus, and VPN solutions offer different capabilities. They also cater to different users.
Making the best choice comes down to:
- Understanding your needs.
- Understanding your options.
Let’s dive deeper into both of those now.
The difference between firewalls, antivirus, and VPNs (in-depth)
To this point, we’ve tried to establish a basic understanding of the purpose each of these tools serves.
From here, we’ll try to help you make decisions.
Inescapably, that means more technical details.
However, we’ll do our best to skip straight to what matters to you. We’ll identify use cases, explain how to choose, and help you decide what you need and don’t need. There will be a few recommendations as well. Plus, we’ll link to plenty of related resources.
By the end, you should be able to make some decisions. For some of you, that means putting together your own custom security combination. Luckily, many of the best security products prioritize ease of use.
Still, you may find yourself overwhelmed. It could be a smart idea to hire a security specialist. Whatever the cost, it’s potentially much less expensive than cleaning up after you’re hacked. There’s also the peace of mind true expertise provides.
In our experience, though, most users can manage for themselves.
What is a Firewall?
A firewall’s purpose is to prevent unlawful and unwanted access to a computer network at either the hardware or software level. It can reside within networking software as well as hardware configurations, such as a router.
How Firewalls Work
Firewalls inspect incoming data packets and either examine the header or go deeper to inspect the packet contents to determine if there is a threat to the overall health of the network to which it is requesting access.
Do I really need a Firewall?
YES! Chances are you already have one as many routers feature at least a basic firewall configuration to help mitigate the risks associated with bringing information into the network from the internet. However, it is important to make sure that at least your company network has a firewall that has been set up correctly.
How to choose a firewall
Several factors go into this decision, such as hardware- vs. software-based firewalls, cost, and your company’s needs. Costs can range between $100 and several thousands of dollars depending on the product as well as whom you choose to implement it. Both the product and the vendor should boast a good track record and happy customers. Do your research.
Luckily, we’ve already done the research, and we can tell you that overall, hardware-based firewalls offer the best and most reliable firewall solutions. They are less prone to hacking and less expensive than other software-based firewalls once you add up the license “per seat” costs that some charge.
What is Antivirus Software?
Antivirus software resides on a computer (or server) and specifically scans for digital threats such as viruses and malware. Even if the software is not able to remove (delete/purge) the threat completely, it can quarantine the threat, preventing it from infecting other files or directories on the hard drive.
Antivirus software is all about protecting the hard drive and operating system from being infected. There are all kinds of threats out there – just like real (and imaginary) bad guys. Some viruses and malware (malignant software) are like petty crooks that want to crawl computers looking for sensitive financial data that can be exploited for money. Others are downright mean and have the goal of rendering the computer completely useless.
Like the Joker in the movie “The Dark Knight” was described: “Some men just want to see the world burn.” The same can be said of the people who write viruses and malware while having nothing financial to gain. Rumors of unscrupulous antivirus software companies that provide both the problem (the virus) as well as the anti-virus are probably true or have been true in the past.
How Antivirus Software Works
Viruses and malware try andinfiltrate a computer using the easiest possible way to sneak through firewalls – by being requested. The ancient story of Troy and the Trojan Horse depicts how viruses try and get in: an army hid inside a giant horse that the enemy city state thought was a gift from the Gods. Once the horse was brought inside the walls of the city, the army came out and conquered them. In the same way, viruses often pose as helpful software, only to unleash harmful programs once installed and executed.
Do I need Antivirus software?
Absolutely! Everyone needs some kind of antivirus software. Even if you own a Macintosh, there are threats out there that can render your computer useless now that more and more Mac-targeted viruses and malware are out there.
How to Choose Antivirus Software
The good news is that Windows computers today come with excellent built-in antivirus software that does a great job protecting the PC. However, it doesn’t do much good if it’s not actually running. You may want to go into settings and make sure it’s working. Beyond that, you should still consider other products for extra protection. The best way to choose if you are googling for the answer is to AVOID the ads at the top and search further down for a good third-party review, especially ones that come with lab-tested results.
Based on what we have seen, the common “name-brand” products aren’t necessarily the best. The one that may not be a household name yet that is considered one of the best, if not THE best, is Bitdefender.
What is a VPN?
VPN is an acronym for Virtual Private Network. Instead of connecting directly to the internet, you connect to a virtual and private network BEFORE accessing the internet. It’s like a tunnel – prying eyes can’t see where you’re going, only that you’re accessing the internet with a VPN.
VPN is mostly concerned with keeping the privacy and protecting the sensitive information sent FROM your computer. While it does provide an extra level of protection from incoming threats, its main goal is to not only protect the data you are sending but also to protect the location from which you are accessing the internet.
Like all subsectors of the online security industry, VPNs need to evolve quickly. New threats emerge every day. So best practices must change just as fast. There’s a war being waged against your privacy. VPNs stand on the front lines, actively working to protect your online security. No wonder it’s so easy to get confused. VPN security is already complex, and the ever-changing landscape only makes it worse.
How VPNs Work
Rather than opening a door to the internet from your Internet Service Provider (ISP), connecting to a VPN is like putting an invisibility cloak around yourself as you race over to another building which handles all of the interactivity for you. VPN will handle all the encryption and decryption to and from the internet. This obviously slows down your internet connection somewhat. This shortcoming used to simply be a cost of doing business on the internet, and most companies didn’t mind the short delays – but these days, it’s usually a matter of milliseconds instead of seconds.
Do I need a VPN?
It depends on what you’re doing and your appetite for risk and anonymity. If privacy is important to you or there are a lot of geographic restrictions from content providers you want or need to access, then yes – a VPN is essential. Especially if you work remotely and regularly need to access industry-sensitive or private files, a VPN is a business must-have.
How to Chose a Secure VPN
If you were choosing a real-life tunnel to drive through, would you select one made of sand or reinforced concrete? Concrete is the obvious answer. In the same way, cheaper VPN options may not offer the best value or security. There are even free VPN services that may tempt you, but some will give you the very insecurity their product promises to prevent.
It’s also a good idea to look for a VPN provider that has great capacity, uses secure protocols, and is NOT a fake service. Fake services pose as a secure VPN only to bring back spyware, adware, and whatever else they can get away with. It’s always a good idea to check multiple sources for how a provider rates.
Our top two recommendations are ExpressVPN and NordVPN. We’ve reviewed them both extensively. They provide industry-leading levels of encryption and data security. They’re also fast, easy, and offer a variety of server locations. They serve security-centric users as well as other VPN customer profiles.