How To Download Files From The Internet The Secure Way

Martin Brinkmann
Jul 13, 2009
Updated • Apr 10, 2012

Everyone who uses an Internet connection is downloading files from there. It can be automatic file transfers like downloading new emails or filling the browser cache when opening new websites but also manual downloads of pictures, videos or programs. The most dangerous type of downloads are program executables as they can infect a computer system easily if the user has no precautions in place. The following article will give users of every experience level some guidelines at hand on how to download and handle files that are downloaded from the Internet.

It all begins at a website or server. This is the starting point and it might be a good idea to start validating that server before even thinking about downloading files from there. This can be done manually by performing some searches in search engines but also automatically with browser add-ons or plugins like Web of Trust, McAfee's Site Advisor and a plethora of other respected programs including local security software that can also check websites and servers.

The second step involves downloading the file to the local computer system. There is not a lot that can be done here in this step. The only defense are security software programs that are installed on the computer system that should scan the file and report back to the user if they believe it to be malicious. Cautious users can also use one of the many online virus scanners to upload the file and scan it online. Services like Virus Total scan the files with more than a dozen different up to date antivirus engines resulting in a more precise analysis of the file.

Another option is to check the hash values of the downloaded files to make sure that they have not been tampered with. This only makes sense if the developer is displaying the values on a trusted website.

It is pretty safe to assume that the file is safe and can be executed on the computer system if it did pass the tests. There is however a last step that can be done to add the extra mile of security: Virtualization. Programs like Sandboxie or VMWare Player make it possible to execute programs in a closed environment for testing purposes. The benefit of this approach is that they cannot harm the rest of the computer system if they should be malicious.

Did we leave something out? Let us know in the comments.


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  1. Cochin Blogger said on July 15, 2009 at 7:41 am

    Thanks, Martin! That’s all I wanted to know, and that’s good enough for me.

    Keep up the good work! Many of the tools you recommend have changed my life. I appreciate the service you are providing.

    Cochin Blogger

  2. Cochin Blogger said on July 14, 2009 at 11:52 am

    I’ve wondered about this before, and now seems a good time to ask. I’m fascinated by the way you unearth useful utilities. I use many of them, and cannot imagine how I managed without them. Thanks!

    My question: Can I assume the utilities you recommend in Ghacks are safe? Do you do any testing before recommending utilities?

    My apologies if my question seems rude. Whatever your answer, I’ll continue to use the utilities you recommend. I’m addicted!


    1. Martin said on July 14, 2009 at 2:10 pm

      Cochin I test every software program before I write an article about it. I cannot guarantee 100% safety though because of several reasons, one being that the developer or website could upload a new version of the program to their website after I have downloaded and tested a version of the program. It is therefor ok to assume that the files are safe but better to check them on your end as well either by using an online scanner like Virustotal or a security software locally.

  3. Jim Carter said on July 14, 2009 at 12:32 am

    Excellent article! I own a PC repair and sales business that deals mainly with home users and small businesses. For several years we’ve been preaching the following: (1) surf with Firefox and not IE, (2) only visit sites that are deemed safe by BOTH Site Advisor and WOT. Of late we’ve identified our biggest downloaders and we’ve advised them to upload all downloaded files to Virus Total prior to installation. In addition to these precautions, we install Adblock Plus with 3 filters including malware domains. We also install anti virus software, a spyware detection program and a web site blocker. We’ve had very few repeat offenders with this plan of attack. We service about 1,000 PCs annually. Keep up the good work!

  4. Deborah said on July 13, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Thank you for recommending WOT to your readers. WOT helps Internet users stay safe as they search for downloads, browse the Web and shop online. Our community has grown to 5 million users and we have over 23 million sites rated. Please join our community and help us to make the Internet safer for everyone.

    Safe surfing,
    Web of Trust

  5. HNicolai said on July 13, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    It would be nice with a program like Sandboxie but it would work in Vista/7 64bit.

    It’s take too long time to start a whole new virtual OS, sandboxie is much faster.

  6. hak2001 said on July 13, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Another one goes here

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