15 great, free privacy downloads

These free products can save you from malicious software and eavesdroppers. Don't leave your PC exposed and vulnerable.

Browsing Privacy and Security

Looking for multipurpose tools for protecting your privacy and security? The following three can help you surf anonymously, avoid trouble at wireless hot spots, and receive alerts about certain sites that may host malware designed to invade your privacy.

Tor

A surprising amount of information about you can be gathered as you surf the Web — including the operating system you use, the sites you've visited recently, your geographic location, and possibly your company (based on your IP address).

To keep these pieces of information private, try Tor, a free program that protects your anonymity as you surf. Tor takes all of your Internet communications, including instant messaging and other Internet applications, and sends them around a large network of "onion" routers that are Tor servers, making it impossible for sites or people to invade your privacy.

The Tor download includes other software that you need for maintaining your privacy — notably Privoxy, a proxy program. The programs work well together; and because the software self-configures, they are simple to use. Tor runs in your system tray. To become anonymous, right-click the icon and choose Start. From that point on, you'll be anonymous. To stop surfing anonymously, right-click again and choose Stop. You can even change your Tor identity for maximum cloaking.

Download Tor | Price: Free

Hotspot Shield

Some of the most nefarious online dangers arise when you're away from your home or office: Wi-Fi hacking and snooping. In a hotspot at a public location, a bad guy can set up a sniffer to snoop on all the data sent by everyone nearby. The snoop can see all of the information you send and receive over the Internet, including your user names and passwords.

Hotspot Shield sets up a virtual private network (VPN) for you and encrypts all of your data so that it can't be read. It works in much the same way as the VPNs that companies use for their remote employees.

Hotspot Shield is quite simple to install, set up, and use, with one caveat: During the installation process, you must make sure not to let the Dealio toolbar be installed. It's adware that has nothing to do with how the program works, so choosing not to install it won't have any adverse effects. When you first launch the program, your default browser will launch and display an ad. But you can close that window and continue to surf safely.

Download Hotspot Shield | Price: Free

McAfee Site Advisor for Firefox

One of the best ways to protect your privacy is to avoid getting infected by malware. These days, most people get infected by downloading infected software or by visiting a Web site that installs malware without their knowledge. So you'd like to know whether a site you visit is likely to infect you directly or to harbor malware.

With so many thousands of Web sites, though, how can you know which ones are safe and which ones aren't? MacAfee SiteAdvisor does a great job of letting you know. Perform a search in Google or Yahoo, and in each of the search results you'll see an icon that rates the safety of the site. A red X warns you that it's a dangerous sites; a green check means that it's safe; and a yellow exclamation mark means that it's questionable.

Hover your mouse directly over the icon, and a pop-up will appear, informing you of what might be dangerous about the site. It details whether the site has dangerous downloads, whether the site sends spam to you if you register on it, and whether the site includes links to other sites that are known to be dangerous. To get even more information, click More Info on the pop-up, and you'll receive a detailed list of the dangerous downloads, as well as what malware or adware infects the site.

Best of all, Site Advisor works when you browse sites, too. The software displays a small icon at the bottom of the screen as you surf. The icon warns you when you hit a dangerous site.

Download McAfee Site Advisor for Firefox | Price: Free

Firefox Add-Ons

One great thing about Firefox is the large number of add-ons available to improve your browsing experience. The options include plenty of privacy-related add-ons. These three are among the best.

NoScript

The Web is built on interactivity, but those wonderful interactive features can be used to attack and damage your PC. JavaScript, plug-ins, Java, and other kinds of scripts and code on Web sites are hazardous. But here's the problem: If you turn them off completely, you lose some of the nicest things on the Web; and if you keep them, you expose yourself to danger.

For Firefox users there's a simple answer: a free extension called NoScript. NoScript lets you turn scripts, plug-ins, and other interactive elements on or off at will, leaving them turned on at some Web sites and turned off at others. It protects against dangerous cross-site scripting attacks, too.

The extension offers a remarkable amount of control, permitting you to customize which scripts and extensions to allow on a per-site basis. You can also block sites temporarily or permanently on each site.

Download NoScript | Price: Free

WOT

This Firefox add-in works in much the same way as the McAfee Site Advisor. WOT rates sites according to their privacy, security, and trustworthiness, from Excellent reputation to Very Poor reputation, and it displays an icon next to the Address Bar indicating how it rates a particular site. As you search, you'll be able to see the icon as well, so that you can decide before visiting a site whether you want to go there.

Download WOT | Price: Free

Secure Login

Little surprise that Secure Login provides a way to log you in to Web sites securely. It integrates with Firefox's password list — so when you visit a site, you can log in by clicking a button instead of having to type in your user name and password. Beyond that, Secure Login keeps your passwords safe in various ways. It stops any malicious JavaScript code from stealing your password, and it can block other password-stealing attacks, such as cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks.

Download Secure Login | Price: Free

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