AOL is to enhance its internet access with a centralised Safety & Security centre that will alert members to threats and make it easier for them to monitor their antivirus and firewall protection.

Set to go live in March, AOL Safety & Security will bring together new and existing tools to both strengthen and streamline the software’s security features. Key changes include the addition of an anti-spyware tool and a security status panel that runs when you sign on to AOL.

The Safety & Security feature has been offered to US members since late November and features five security options: protect my privacy, protect my computer, protect my kids, protect my identity and optimise my PC.

AOL is currently in the process of building a UK front end which will add a sixth option that is likely to link to AOL’s existing Computer Checkup diagnostic and repair tool.

Will Smith, AOL’s Safety & Security spokesperson, is keen to centralise AOL’s current online security tools to make them easier to use. He believes that AOL is “currently over-informing” members, to the detriment of their understanding. The new features will improve upon this by offering “a more intuitive bunch” of features accessible from a single menu.

The new security features will be free to new and existing AOL members. When members log on they will see a colourcoded status screen informing them whether the firewall is switched on and whether their antivirus definitions are up to date. The applet that checks for these details looks for any of the main third-party security tools as well as the McAfee app embedded in AOL. Members will also be able to verify and update their safety settings under a central security tab.

Some of the frustrating factors of surfing the web will also be addressed. AOL recently acquired SpyZapper – a program that blocks advertising pop-ups and applications that load on to your PC on the sly and attempt to compromise your personal data or report on your computing activities. AOL monitors which pop-ups are most prevalent and will automatically apply a block to the top three at any given time. Members will also be able to blacklist bugbear sites that otherwise reinstall themselves upon reboot despite having been removed.

SpyZapper has now been incorporated into AOL 9.0 and will be an important element of the Safety & Security centre.

AOL has also hinted that it may eventually introduce physical tags that prevent people logging on without entering a randomly-generated number. Too many of us are slack about passwords, allowing our PCs to store cookies that autocomplete our login details, leaving our systems vulnerable. The tags, known as AOL Passcode, are currently only in use in the US but eventually may be introduced in the UK. However, a spokeswoman said such a move was unlikely in the coming 12 months.

The ISP will, however, be ramping up the safety checks for its AIM instant messaging application, putting the onus even more firmly on parents to allow juveniles to converse with online friends. Youngsters eager to chat will have to get emailed permission from a parent – as will the person with whom they want to correspond.

AOL is keen to build on its reputation for online safety. It has become well known for its Parental Controls feature which provides differing levels of content filtering depending on a child’s age. Now, however, most of us are more concerned about information about ourselves leaking out via our web connections, rather than about exposing our kids to inappropriate content.

After a year in which the general public woke up to phishing scams and the extent to which spyware is infecting most PCs, many of us have become far more concerned about going online. For AOL and other internet providers keeping online nasties at bay and reassuring web users that it’s safe to surf are big priorities.