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A firewall is a buffer between your local network and the internet that helps control the traffic that flows in and out. It can be an important part of a security system that prevents outside threats from infecting your devices with malware―including viruses, worms and ransomware. You can buy and install special hardware firewalls for your home, but a dedicated hardware firewall isn't necessary for most people.
How Do Firewalls Protect You?
Firewalls protect you by filtering internet traffic based on rules you set or are preconfigured on the firewall. By default, they tend to block everything that isn't known to be safe or that users tell the firewall to let through. For example, if someone tries to connect to your computer, the firewall could automatically block the connection to keep the attacker at bay.
Firewalls can't protect you from everything, though. If you click on a link in your email and download malware, the program could slip through the firewall and infect your machine. Still, a firewall can be important for protecting your home's network and your devices from external threats.
Hardware vs. Software Firewalls
Firewalls come in two forms—hardware and software firewalls.
A hardware firewall is a speciality stand-alone device. You might plug it in where the internet comes into your home, before the router that creates your local wired and wireless network. Adding the firewall at the beginning of the chain allows it to filter all the data that's passing into your home and going to the computers, phones and smart devices connected to your network.
Software firewalls perform a similar function on a non-firewall-specific device. For example, the Windows and Apple computer operating systems come with software firewalls installed by default, and some antivirus programs also have software firewalls you can use.
These software firewalls offer an additional layer of protection, which could be important if the router's firewall only blocks threats from external sources. For instance, if your kids, roommates or someone else introduce malware into the network, it could still infect other connected devices.
Do You Need to Buy a Firewall?
Fortunately, most people don't need to buy a firewall. Many devices come with free software firewalls, and many routers automatically have a firewall and additional security protections built in.
If you have an older router, however, a separate hardware firewall or an upgrade might be a good idea. This is especially necessary if you also have a potentially vulnerable computer with a no-longer-updated operating system or smart devices from little-known brands—such as a smart light bulb or LED strip you bought from an online marketplace.
Newer routers can offer a wide-range of features with an intuitive interface, including:
- Traffic monitoring: The router may give you detailed reports of your data usage based on the device, time and type of website.
- Parental controls and content filtering: Block devices or your entire network from connecting to certain websites or categories of sites and services. You also may be able to create specific rules, such as no gaming after a certain hour.
- Ad blocking: Keep ads from appearing on websites and inside applications.
- Virtual private networks (VPNs): Encrypts your network traffic by creating a VPN, although this may require you to install an app on each device.
The routers may also automatically download and install updates to help keep you protected and the system running smoothly. But compare the options before making a purchase, because some require an ongoing subscription if you want more than the basic security features.
How to Keep Your Devices and Information Safe
While firewalls can be a helpful part of monitoring and protecting your home network and devices, they're only one piece of the puzzle. You also want to keep your devices updated, because the latest security patches can fix known vulnerabilities. And add strong passwords and automatic locking to phones or computers that could be stolen or that others could easily access.
Additionally, many hackers and fraudsters are able to get into systems by tricking people rather than breaking through security systems. Learning how to identify phishing, smishing and vishing messages can be one of the most important parts of staying safe.
Even then, your identity could be at risk if it's compromised in other ways. Experian's IdentityWorks℠ can monitor your credit reports, the dark web and other databases for suspicious changes and your private information, and then send you real-time alerts if it finds anything. The program also includes identity theft insurance and restoration services.