Category Archives: Tools

Review: Heimdal Security Software

I’m always on the lookout for tools that simplify the task of keeping software up to date. I recently installed Heimdal Security Free on my Windows 8.1 PC, and took a close look at its software patching feature.

Note: the paid version of Heimdal Security includes network traffic-based malware detection. That feature appears in the free version, but it’s disabled.

The Good

The software basically does what it says. By default, it automatically checks for out of date software, and silently installs updates where needed. The software it checks includes the vulnerability-prone Flash and Java, as well as all the major browsers. It’s fast, relatively unobtrusive, and has a polished, professional user interface.

The patching system can be customized: you can tell it to only check for updates, but NOT install them automatically, and you can disable checking for anything in its software list, which currently includes forty-one items.

The Bad

  • If you disable the auto-update feature, there’s no obvious way to install new versions.
  • The ‘Recommended Software’ tab has Install buttons, which at first looks useful. But closer inspection reveals that this list only shows software that isn’t currently installed. In fact, it lists some software I’ve never even heard of, much less installed.
  • Heimdal detects software that is available in both 32- and 64-bit versions. But if you have the 32-bit version installed, the ‘Recommended Software’ tab will list the 64-bit version. And vice-versa. This is not useful.
  • There’s no obvious way to tell Heimdal to perform a re-scan. I eventually realized that disabling the feature and re-enabling it does that, but a ‘Scan’ button would be a real improvement.
  • The software list cuts off some important information: the software version number is often truncated, making definite confirmation of version changes difficult. And there’s no way to resize the column, or the dialog. Update: I discovered that the missing information can be revealed by hovering the mouse over a truncated field.
  • Heimdal shows some software as needing an update when in fact that software is up to date. For example, it continues to report an available update for 7-Zip 16.04: to version 16.04.0. It looks like Heimdal fails to match versions when there are extra zeros.
  • There’s no way to shut down Heimdal once it’s installed. There’s an icon in the notification area, but it doesn’t even have a right-click menu. Your only option is to uninstall Heimdal completely.
  • When Heimdal installs something from the ‘Recommended Software’ tab, it configures itself to automatically update that software. An option to override this behaviour would be helpful.

It’s possible that some of these issues would not present themselves if I configured Heimdal to install updates automatically, but I prefer to have more control over software installation.


Despite its flaws, Heimdal may prove useful to some users. But I can’t recommend it.

Update 2017JFeb01: Heimdal responded to my review, addressing my concerns:

For the moment, Heimdal does not have the option to install updates manually. We wanted to make software updates fast, secure and hassle-free for Heimdal users and adding a manual option would be the opposite of that.

My response: that’s just silly. Make it an option, but default to automatic. Most users would never even see the option. It wouldn’t make anything slower, or less secure, or increase hassle. And all the necessary functionality is already in place.

We called it “recommended software” because it not installed on the system. These are apps you can install with one click, should you want to do it. If not, they don’t impede you in any way.

My response: Understood, but it’s kind of misleading, especially since in some cases they are recommending 32 bit versions of software already installed in 64 bit form.

Indeed, this is something we will work on improving, so we can match software versions to the type of system they’re recommended for.

The scan button is in Heimdal’s home screen, when you hover over the big white button with the green checkmark. We will try to make this more obvious in future versions.

My response: on the Overview tab, there’s a big white icon that’s either a checkmark (if everything is up to date) or an exclamation mark (if it isn’t). Nothing appears when you hover the mouse over this icon, and there’s no indication that clicking it will do anything. But it does work, so it would be nice to have this properly labeled.

Making windows resizable is not something customary to security applications (it would create an unnecessary burden on the system), but we will try to rearrange the elements so that they provide a clearer view in future updates.

My response: Making windows resizable is in fact standard for all Windows applications, and those that don’t allow this are probably not following Windows development guidelines. Further, the notion that adding this functionality would somehow place a ‘burden on the system’ is simply absurd. But the indicated fixes will be welcome in the absence of resize-ability.

Heimdal shows some software as needing an update when in fact that software is up to date.

I think that our support team can help you with that. If you can, send them an email at and they’ll be right on it!

My response: Done. After some back and forth, Heimdal support reproduced one of the problems on their end (7-Zip version detection), and is working on a fix.

We will add a right-click menu in the coming versions. There is no option to shut down Heimdal, because security software usually does not have this feature. If it had it, malware could easily switch it off and infect the system.

My response: if malware is present on a computer, it can kill a process as easily as it can stop a program from its system menu. I want to be able to run the update feature on-demand, and there’s simply no way to do that sensibly unless the program can be closed.

Windows 10 privacy improvements, sort of

The good news is that Microsoft is improving the state of privacy in Windows 10, albeit slowly, and grudgingly. The bad news is that the improvements are unlikely to satisfy anyone genuinely concerned about what Windows 10 is really doing.

New: Privacy Dashboard

A few days ago, Terry Myerson, Microsoft’s Executive Vice President of the Windows and Devices Group, announced a new web-based Privacy Dashboard, accessible via your Microsoft account. If you don’t have a Microsoft account, you’re out of luck. I’m still using my Microsoft account to log into my test system, because otherwise I’d have to buy a Windows 10 license. You probably already have a Microsoft account even if you don’t use Windows 10, as they are used for XBox Live, Skype, and other Microsoft services as well.

Poking around in the Privacy Dashboard, the Browsing History section is empty for me, presumably because I don’t use Cortana or Edge. The Search History section is also empty for me, because I don’t use Bing search. But if you use Cortana, Edge and Bing, you’d be able to see all that history here, and be able to remove it as well.

The Location section shows where you’ve been when you logged in on Windows 8.1 and 10 computers. Again, you can clear any or all of this. The section for Cortana’s database shows everything Cortana knows about you, based on your interactions. This is where things get interesting for me, because I only used Cortana for a couple of days when I first installed Windows 10. Cortana knows how often I eat at restaurants, and how far I go to get there. It knows my main mode of transportation. It knows what kind of news interests me. It’s not much, but it’s enough to be kind of creepy.

The Privacy Dashboard is a step in the right direction, and it’s very useful for anyone interested in seeing exactly what information Microsoft has collected. It also allows you to clear much of that information. But what if you want to prevent Microsoft from gathering this information in the first place?

Privacy improvements in Windows 10

Also revealed in Myerson’s post are upcoming changes to the privacy settings in Windows 10. The initial privacy setup has changed, and now provides a bit more information about the various privacy levels and settings. Microsoft is “simplifying Diagnostic data levels and further reducing the data collected at the Basic level.” But in fact there will be fewer privacy levels to choose from, and there’s still no real explanation of exactly what data is sent. And of course the most useful ‘Security’ level (which disables almost all telemetry) is only available to Enterprise users. Us regular folks can only throttle data collection down to the ‘Basic’ level.

According to Microsoft, the Basic level “includes data that is vital to the operation of Windows. We use this data to help keep Windows and apps secure, up-to-date, and running properly when you let Microsoft know the capabilities of your device, what is installed, and whether Windows is operating correctly. This option also includes basic error reporting back to Microsoft.” This sounds reasonable, but it’s lacking in detail and — for many users — still sounds like an intrusion.

Luckily, there are alternatives. I recently discovered a Powershell script called Reclaim Windows 10 that can disable all of the telemetry settings in Windows 10. I’ve yet to test the script, but it looks promising.

Advertisements in Windows 10?

Microsoft still insists this isn’t about advertising: “We want you to be informed about and in control of your data, which is why we’re working hard on these settings and controls. And regardless of your data collection choices, we will not use the contents of your email, chat, files, or pictures to target ads to you.” I’d like to believe that, but it seems unlikely. Microsoft is clearly taking aim at Google’s huge lead in online advertising, and the idea of having a captive audience for advertising (in the form of millions of Windows users) is obviously just too tempting to resist.

Microsoft continues to push Windows 10, now at the expense of Windows 7, which it now says “does not meet the requirements of modern systems, nor the security requirements of IT departments.”

Update 2017Jan18: Techdirt weighs in.

Microsoft to abandon EMET slightly later than planned

Starting in 2009, Microsoft’s Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (EMET) provided Windows users with an additional layer of security. It was designed to block specific, known types of vulnerabilities. EMET proved particularly useful for people running older versions of Windows, especially XP.

I’ve been recommending EMET since it was first available, and it’s still a useful addition to any Windows system, but I’ve also been running into an increasing number of EMET-related problems, and finally stopped using it on my main Windows 8.1 computer recently.

Microsoft originally intended to stop supporting the Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (EMET) in January 2017, but based on customer feedback, EMET’s demise will now take place on July 31, 2018.

In the recent EMET end-of-life announcement, Microsoft admits to EMET’s failings, and points out that much of the protection provided by EMET is now built into Windows 10. Of course, that doesn’t help those of us who are avoiding Windows 10 because of privacy and control issues.

Update 2016Nov22: According to CERT (a division of the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University), Microsoft’s claims for Windows 10 are not entirely accurate. While it’s fair to say that Windows 10 includes the system-wide protections provided by EMET, it does not provide per-application settings. In other words, Windows 10 security can be improved by also running EMET. This makes the retirement of EMET by Microsoft seem rather premature.

Password managers

“If you’re not using a password manager, you should be.” You’ve heard the refrain, and you’re probably tired of hearing it. But we won’t stop saying it until people get the message.

Rule #1 in online security is “Don’t re-use passwords for multiple web sites and services.” Rule #2 is “Use long, complex passwords.” Following those two rules means you have to remember multiple, long, complex passwords. This is not something humans are particularly good at, which is why we need password management software.

I use Password Corral, free Windows software from Cygnus Productions. It’s not limited to storing passwords, so you can use it for bank accounts, license information, and so on. It can generate strong passwords according to customizable rules. It won’t fill in web forms for you, and it can’t be accessed on the cloud, but I don’t actually want either of those features.

I also recommend Bruce Schneier’s Password Safe.

When deciding on a password management solution, there are several factors to consider. There’s a useful comparison of password management tools (PDF) over at the SANS InfoSec Reading Room. It doesn’t include Password Corral or Password Safe, preferring to concentrate on the more mainstream and popular services, but it’s worth reading.

Was your account exposed as part of a breach?

It seems like every few weeks another web site or online service is breached. When that happens, user account information is almost always stolen, and usually published online.

If you have an account on a breached site or service, you may not be in any immediate danger. Often, only email addresses are published. Sometimes account/user names are also published. Occasionally, encrypted passwords are published, and when that happens, the weaker of those passwords are also quickly decrypted. The worst case scenario is where you’ve used a single, weak password for several different web sites or services.

After learning about a breach on a site or service, your first step should be to determine whether you have an account there. If you do, you should sign in and change the account’s password immediately (sometimes this is forced by the site owner in response to a breach). Then, if you’ve used the same account/email + password anywhere else, sign in to those other sites and change those passwords. Then stop using the same password everywhere, and start using a password manager like Password Corral.

If you’re not sure where you’ve used a particular account/user name or email address, you should start by searching for them on the Have I Been Pwned site. ‘Pwn’ is gamer slang for ‘own’, if you were wondering. Enter a username or email address, and the site will search it them in all known lists of breach data.

The perils of using free services

RIP TweetDeck

Twitter is pulling the plug on the Windows version of its popular TweetDeck application, pushing users to switch to the web-based version. Although they claim otherwise, the reason is simple: web applications are easier to monetize.

Twitter purchased TweetDeck in 2011 because users found its interface much more useful than the Twitter web interface, and were switching in large numbers. This translated into a loss of advertising revenue for Twitter. There were immediate predictions that Twitter would kill off TweetDeck, and that’s finally happening.

For some users, switching to the web-based TweetDeck will not be a problem. The two interfaces are virtually identical. But having a compact, separate application has several advantages: I can configure it to start automatically with my computer; I can leave it running all the time without hurting my computer’s performance; and it’s not – like all web-based apps – inherently fragile. So I’m looking at alternatives. If I find one I like, I’ll post about it.

Mandrill email no longer free

If you use Mandrill’s email service, you should start looking for an alternative. Unless you think $20 per month seems like good value to send a few emails.

I originally started using Mandrill because my Internet Service Provider’s email service was increasingly less willing to process email from domains I host, including If you don’t host your own domains, and you don’t send large quantities of email, you’re unlikely to ever need a ‘transactional email’ service like Mandrill.

Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives to Mandrill. Right now I’m evaluating MailGun, which is free for up to 10,000 emails per month, and supports DKIM and SPF, technologies that help to identify legitimate senders and reduce spam.

Test your browser’s security

A new, free, web-based service from cyscon GmbH tests your web browser and reports any security issues it finds.

Check-and-secure starts by checking your computer for open ports, then compares your IP address against a list of addresses associated with botnet activity.

Next, you have the option of checking your browser version and looking for out of date plugins like Java, Flash, and Silverlight. This is arguably the most useful part of the service, and you can get to it directly, which is handy.

The remainder of the service consists of offers to install various local security software packages. I haven’t yet tried the Cyscon Vaccination software, so can’t comment on its efficacy.

EMET 5.5 now available

Microsoft’s Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (EMET) version 5.5 was released on February 2.

EMET is not a substitute for anti-malware software, but it does provide an additional layer of security against typical malware activity. If malware finds its way onto your Windows computer, EMET can prevent it from causing actual damage; by default, it kills the affected process.

EMET is free, and recommended. Unfortunately, when you use EMET, there’s a chance that it will cause problems for legitimate software. A few weeks ago – before EMET 5.5 was released – EMET started reporting problems with my main computer’s Office software, including Outlook and Excel. I was forced to disable some of EMET’s detection settings for those programs. I had hoped that EMET 5.5 would resolve these issues, but it did not.

Still, EMET can be a useful addition to your security toolkit, if you’re willing to put up with the occasional glitch.