Can you stop the bots?

Given that cyberspace is swarming with bots looking to snatch or destroy your data, does it make sense to install a firewall?

Yes, says Gregor Freund, CEO of Zone Labs, in the South of Market district of San Francisco. Freund is the inventor of Zone Alarm, a firewall that has been downloaded, for free, by 15 million users. (Firewalls are software programs you can install to help shield your computer from hackers, annoying marketing bots, or viruses looking to crash your system. Some firewalls are better than others, but none is infallible.)

Several computer security reviewers give good marks to Zone Alarm for stopping the normal marketbot from pestering your PC. It also stops various Microsoft products from automatically exporting your data when you go online. Other experts, however, such as Bruce Schneier of Counterpane Internet Security in Cupertino, say that any competent hacker can blast right through most firewalls. Freund agrees that Zone Alarm can't thwart a dedicated hacker, but using a firewall, he says, is a no-brainer safety issue, like fastening your seat belt in a car.

There's one other thing Zone Alarm won't protect you from, though: the company's own marketing efforts. It turns out that Zone Alarm shares information about its users with its business partners, which include well-known corporations such as Visa, Prodigy, Hewlett-Packard, and Cisco. It also targets its users for advertising campaigns. That's the price you pay for a free piece of software, Freund says.

In fact, giving away Zone Alarm for free is itself a marketing ploy intended to develop brand-name recognition. The big money in firewall security is not with protecting bot-hating consumers, but with the large corporations such as Freund's business partners, who are eager to monitor the cyberactivities of their own employees since malicious insiders account for most of the monetary damage caused by hacking. Freund's process, which is on file with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, shows clearly that his security program functions only secondarily as a consumer firewall. Its main purpose is to spy on thieving employees and stop them from visiting verboten Web sites during working hours or from running a small business on company time.

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