Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Software firewalls and other security packages can definitely help keep things more secure, but they can also add their own level of confusion as well.

I can't access this website...

I'm not seeing pictures in my email...

Emails are disappearing from my inbox...

This program's not working...

Why am I getting all these warnings...

I can't get a video / audio / instant messaging connection...

Those are all extremely common questions I get every day.

And, while it's definitely not the case that a software firewall or security package is always the cause, it turns out to be fairly common.

Based on the number of reports I get, many of these types of problems, and others, often go away when a software firewall or security package is disabled or reconfigured in some way.

And it's almost always the more full featured software firewalls or Internet security suites that cause the problem.

Let's look at each of the symptoms I listed, and how a these packages might be interfering.

I can't access this website...

Security packages will sometimes block access to certain websites or IP addresses that are known to cause problems. However, apparently, sometimes the database of sites or IPs that the software uses can get confused, or sites can get mistakenly blocked.

The good news here is that a good package will have a "whitelist" - a way to specify that it should ignore what it thinks it knows, and allow you to go to a specific site or IP anyway.

I'm not seeing pictures in my email...

Many firewalls and security packages have features designed to help protect you from malicious emails. One way that email can sometimes be used to infect or harm your computer is through vulnerabilities in image display, or using remote images to track whether or not you've opened the message. Sometimes it's the images themselves, while technically "safe", that are offensive in some way. The security packages simply block images using some rules to try and guess what's ok and what's not.

Sometimes the rules are wrong.

Again, the software should have a way of specifying that images under these conditions - typically from specific addresses, or from contacts in your address book, are safe and should be displayed.

Emails are disappearing from my inbox...

This one happens a lot due to over-aggressive spam filtering. Many security programs hook into the email program, or email network traffic, in order to scan for viruses, spyware, phishing schemes and what have you. Unfortunately, sometimes they simply get it wrong, cause problems in the email program you use, or simply cause email to disappear. Outlook Express users appear to be particularly vulnerable to corruption. This is often difficult to control once diagnosed. Most definitely pay attention to the email related settings of the package you're using, and see if it can be turned off or "dialed down" a notch.

This program's not working...

Many programs that access the internet will have problems if a firewall or other security package inserts itself into the middle of the communication. Sometimes it's a simple technical problem, other times it's the security software interfering with or modifying the actual data stream. At times this can even happen due to anti-virus programs watching what's being written to your hard disk. In almost all cases diagnosis is very difficult; while turning of the security software completely might provide a good clue that it's related to the problem, what to do next is often unclear. The best bet is to take the specifics of the situation to the support options offered by the manufacturer of the security package you're running.

"Based on the number of reports I get, many of these types of problems, and others, often go away when a software firewall or security package is disabled ...

Why am I getting all these warnings...

ZoneAlarm in particular, but similar software firewalls as well, are designed to monitor communications that originate from your computer as well as incoming issues, as opposed to the Windows firewall and NAT routers which primarily protect you from external threats. Apparently some times ZoneAlarm can be configured to tell you about every little thing that's going on, and can just flood you with warnings - typically in terms that are difficult to understand. Simple things like Windows attempting to synchronize your clock can cause pop up messages, which are totally safe to ignore - if you know that's what's happening.

If you're facing this problem and getting many more warnings than you know what to do with, you'll probably want to take some of those specific warnings over to the ZoneAlarm support site (or the support site for whichever software firewall you're using) and

  • determine if the warning is a legitimate problem, or a benign message

  • if benign, learn how to configure the firewall to allow it to pass without notice

I can't get a video / audio / instant messaging connection...

Many firewalls block a wide range of incoming ports by default. Unfortunately, while the ports for common text messaging are typically open, quite often the ports used for more advanced features such as audio and video are blocked by default.

First, you'll need to determine which ports are required to support the feature you're using in the IM client you're using. (Personally, I like the forums out at Big Blue Ball for most all IM client information.) Once you know the ports needed, you'll need to determine how to open your particular firewall, or in the case of a router, how to forward those ports to the appropriate computer. Depending on your situation, this can either be very easy, or quite complex.

Software firewalls and security suites most definitely have their place in keeping the internet, and you machine, safe. Unfortunately they can also inject their own flavor of problem if not configured properly. A quick test to see if the firewall or security software is at fault is, of course, to turn it off. What happens next depends entirely on the original issue, and the specifics of your situation. Because these are often not new issues at all to the manufacturers or other users of these security tools, your best bet once you've made that determination, is to visit their support site and public forums. Nine times out of ten, your answer will be there.

Article C2889 - January 4, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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6 Comments
al martin
January 5, 2007 7:08 PM

my son runs the router for our computers and i cannot get deer hunter 2005 to go on line as host game spy has to run and it gets blocked any help???
al

Igor
January 8, 2007 10:37 AM

I have a rather unique problem (I think). I play a game from miniclip.com (Pengapop) for fun. When I use IE (6 or 7) the game loads properly and allows me to play. The same is true for Outlook Express. However, when I try to use the AOL browser (based on IE, I understand) it will not allow me to play the game. Throws up a complaint about me not having a certain Shockwave update or something. Wants me to download it. Asking AOL techs for help got me a long, long process to use, but that did not work either. The question is, then: how come these other browsers can find the correct Shockwave, but AOL can't; and what can I do (other than not use AOL) to fix this issue?

Leo Notenboom
January 8, 2007 1:41 PM

The AOL browser is crippled in some respects. Your best bet, as you've already discovered, it to use the regular version of IE.

Paul Hanna
January 10, 2007 7:29 AM

I'm having a "slow computer" problem, so I read the comments on firewall and security problems. One of the suggestions was to "check the registry". One of the FREE programs on the site was UNIBLUE from liutilities.com - I ran the free scanner and it turned up a bunch of errors. I subscribed for the program, and somehow managed to foul up the transmission. THERE IS NO WAY TO CONTACT UNIBLUE other than email - and they are very busy..I have emailed several times for help and they say "when they have time". Just a "heads up" about UNIBLUE!

Ron
January 5, 2010 4:35 PM

There is one more answer, the HOSTS file. The hosts file bypasses DNS lookup of numeric IP addresses for alphabetical addresses.

Some malware will put entries in HOSTS file to directing your browser to wrong location.

Other possible problem is if you use a "blacklist" service that provides you with a HOSTS file that identifies and blocks malware sites. Some of these services also block web advertising to speed up your browser. Sometimes you may want to get to sites that they have decided to block. You have to manually edit the HOSTS file to delete the entry. These services provide frequent updates to the files. It is easy to forget that you have this service enabled when you can't get to a specific site.

Tonyo Carrera
August 31, 2010 8:25 PM

Dear Leo and community!
Zonealarm is the toughest and I would say best internet security software BUT it drives me up the wall!! After downloads the updates for spy and antivirus it becomes impossible to handle !!
Meaning it locks up my pc and becomes awfully slow.Finally I got rid of it trying to deal with it for years.Now I feel vulnearable.No firewall ,no AV (forget norton or Mccafee they are worthless) is there anything else that is equal or better then zonealarm?
tks.
PS: I've been an internet security wiz many years constantly monitoring the network activity I exactly know what ad agencies trying to steal and what.

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