Firewalls have long been considered an integral component of any security setup. Firewalls come in a number of different types but in this article, we’re going to concentrate solely on free firewalls for home PC users. Firstly, a layman’s explanation of how a firewall works.
A firewall is akin to a guarded gateway, protecting the system from unauthorized access. Firewalls operate per medium of a set of “rules” which allow access only to trusted/known connections. Firewalls generally operate at two levels: incoming connections and outgoing connections. In Windows Firewall for example, certain required and known safe incoming connections are allowed by default while all other incoming connections are blocked. However, although it requires a bit of know-how and is more suited to experienced users, new rules can be added to allow other traffic through.
Many users believe that Windows Firewall does not include the ability to manage outgoing connections, but that is not true. While Windows Firewall does allow all outgoing connections by default, users can manually add rules to block certain outgoing connections/traffic. However, once again, this requires a bit of know-how.
Outgoing connections can be problematic; it’s not an easy assignment to find out what software is transmitting what data to where. However, in the vast majority of cases, outgoing connections are created by software merely phoning home to check for updates. In fewer cases, the software might be transmitting anonymous user data to help developers refine their software. In any case, as long as you stick with reputable software from trusted sources, outgoing connections should not present a problem.
Some years back, third-party firewalls were very popular; there were several very good free third-party firewalls available and discussions across forums as to which was the best were frequent and lively. However, when modern routers began including a hardware firewall, interest in third-party firewalls started to wane, to the extent that two of the most popular – Agnitum Outpost and Privatefirewall – were discontinued, with up-to-date versions no longer available.
Third-party firewalls are fine for more advanced users who possess the experience and know-how to manually configure them out of the box, but far more problematic for less experienced users. For those users who do not possess the experience or know-how to manually configure a third-party firewall, the firewall needs to go through a period of “learning”. This involves a lot of popup questions where the user needs to make a choice, and therein lies the problem. Incorrect choices by inexperienced users can quite easily break critical connections and, if those users simply ignore the questions, then the firewall won’t be configured properly and they haven’t really improved over and above simply using Windows Firewall.
Is Windows Firewall Enough?
In my opinion, for the average home user with a modern router, yes. Using a modern router with its built-in hardware firewall in conjunction with Windows Firewall, which is pretty much configured optimally out of the box, provides strong protection against unauthorized access. There are quite a few free third-party firewalls still available but each comes with its own issues and, as I mentioned earlier, can be problematic for inexperienced users to configure properly. For obvious reasons, businesses and large organizations still utilize third-party firewalls but these are generally advanced/premium firewalls that are most definitely not free.
Do you use a third-party firewall? Let us know via the comments.