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TECH Q&A

Is it really safe to download software?

By Chloe Dunlap, Burbank, California

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When it comes to downloading software from the Internet, I'm always getting conflicting advice from my geeky friends. Knowing my technological ignorance, some tell me that I should never download anything from the Web (recommending only boxed software from the store). Others say some software's okay to download -- but I should be aware of the dangers. How am I supposed to know where to begin identifying the difference? I'm lost!

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Tech Expert Chris Pirillo President, Lockergnome.com

Expert Answer:

Dear Chloe,

If you're going for a walk in the woods, it's wise to venture forth with a clear idea of what poison ivy looks like in comparison to, say, sunflowers. Their similarities may be obvious (they've both got green parts and grow upward from the ground), but you quickly learn to identify their differences if you want to avoid learning the hard way about the consequences of blissful ignorance.

Your geeky friends may be letting you down by not giving you a clear call on the rights and wrongs of swimming in the sea of predators that is our Internet, but in their defense, there's really no easy answer. Just like the aforementioned walk in the woods, though, there are some things you could (and should) know in order to minimize your chances of having a bad day.

1. Software is just code. Some of it is written well, some of it is written poorly, and some of it is written well to do poor things (and vice versa). In other words, software is only as good as its author, that author's intentions, and the application of those intentions to a given purpose. If the software is a game that you download and play for hours of free or low-cost fun, then you may think of downloading software as a positive activity. If the software is a screen saver that secretly injects your system with resource-hogging and privacy-ruining spyware that can't be easily removed without hours of troubleshooting, then you'll likely consider it a negative activity. Either outcome is possible; neither outcome is 100% representative of what is possible.

2. It's fun to download programs that allow you to accomplish new tasks with your computer. Generally speaking, from reputable sources, software should be relatively benign. The root of the problem is, of course: How do you know who's reputable? Let's compare extremes. A site like CNET's download.com, with plenty of links to and from countless outside, big-name sources and well-written, in-depth reviews with detailed system requirements and clear notice of whether a piece of software was scanned for malware or not, is about as safe as safe gets on the Internet. On the other hand, a site with blinking text advertising FREE downloads and program descriptions tapped out in the broken English of a chimpanzee kindergartener and a URL that ends in something like .ru instead of .com should be a red flag. To use the "hike in the woods" analogy once more, such a dubious site is like the poison ivy to CNET's sunflower.

3. Search Google (or your search engine of choice) for what other people are saying about the software in question. Seeing where it's hosted (and if its developer has a site for it) can give you some clues, too. If your search results are primarily links to a multitude of forum posts bashing the software as being loaded with malware, spyware, viruses, and other nasties, you'd be well-advised to avoid it. If you can find evidence of the software being hosted by or linked from sites you've come to trust, then the odds are good that it's probably okay.

4. Always be wary of a forced download -- like your browser telling you that you need to install something in order to view a Web page. No! Just about the only browser plugin you need these days is Adobe Flash, and that should only be downloaded and installed from Adobe's Web site -- nowhere else.

5. When installing any program, read every single step thoroughly. Some installers will also give you a few browser toolbars or "bonuses" that serve to do nothing more than clutter up your computer. Look for boxes to uncheck -- reputable software developers will give you the option to opt out of such offers during an install.

6. Never, ever download software that's been pirated or cracked. That's got "bad news" written all over it in red marker. There's no quicker way to compromise your system than to use code that doesn't come from a trusted source. The number of spyware, virus, and general malware infections would plummet (I'd bet by 90%) if the world stopped using P2P networks for illegitimate media trafficking.

7. Don't assume that, just because you're using a non-Windows operating system (like Linux or Apple's OS X) that you're safe from the threat of a potential security breach. While it's true that most unscrupulous malware programmers will target Windows because it's the most used operating system in the world (and a better investment of their deviously utilized time), you're always going to have some joker going against the grain and spoiling a good thing for everybody.

8. This should be obvious without having to say it, but make sure you've always got security software running (and, for the love of Pete, keep it updated)!

9. If you want to be truly safe, just don't download anything! Err on the side of caution. Use the Web -- there's plenty of great stuff available online that doesn't have to be downloaded onto your system that will give you the function of what we think of as "software." Compare Google Docs (Web-based and free) to Microsoft Office (install required and costly) for just one example.

10. You tell me. Is there something I forgot? :)

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