Latest Symantec suite fine-tunes PC security

Box Score

The online world can be a dangerous place. If you don't properly protect yourself from viruses and hackers, it's no longer a matter of whether you'll become a victim, only of when. And the carefree time between being a productive computer user and a malware victim can be surprisingly short.

In the GCN Lab we recently hooked up a test PC outside the firewall and got called away for about 10 minutes. By the time we'd returned, ready to add proper protection to our system, the computer was already infected. Perhaps it was a lucky break for one industrious hacker, but the point is, it's just a matter of time until an unprotected PC falls prey to malicious code.

Telework dangers

With federal telework requirements heating up, users working from home or a remote office need to defend their systems from the perils of the Internet. There's normally no easier way to do that than with a complete security suite. With several to choose from, including offerings from McAfee and Trend Micro Inc., we started in on Symantec Corp.'s Norton Internet Security 2005. Look for reviews of other security suites in the weeks and months ahead.

Norton Internet Security 2005 includes a firewall, antivirus tool, spam filter and various privacy controls. It comes with several en- hancements over previous versions, including a new antivirus function for blocking worms and an Outbreak Alert feature that notifies users of high-profile threats. On the whole, we were impressed.

We loaded a test system with the full software suite, set it outside the firewall and let the malcontents attack. We set up a bogus e-mail account and it didn't take long for spammers to find it. We were easily able to configure the anti-spam component of the program to work with Outlook, Outlook Express and Eudora. And the program closes a major hole in spam fighting because it can seamlessly integrate with either Hotmail or Yahoo accounts, adding extra spam control buttons to the on-screen window. That's a major improvement in spam protection because Web mail is commonly accessed outside the reach of normal anti-spam security.

Like most anti-spam programs, Norton's gets better the more you train it. You have spend time initially teaching it what you consider to be spam, although it guesses right most of the time out of the box. After showing it over 200 examples of spam, its rate of accuracy was above 98 percent. It also never flagged a legitimate e-mail messsage as spam during our two weeks of testing.

The Norton's antivirus engine is the most important component of the suite. It stopped viruses from entering the system via e-mail and instant messaging, plus it was able to halt repeated port scanning probes and attacks. We especially liked the Outbreak Alert, which triggers a pop-up warning when Symantec issues a security bulletin. It then prompts you to download a new update, if necessary.

If there was one problem with the antivirus program it was the way it handled spyware. We found it could scan for and identify spyware, but it couldn't remove it. We found two spyware programs during our scan, but Norton couldn't delete the .exe file, so we had to skip it. This meant the scanner found the same spyware each time we ran a new scan. The only options were to exclude the file from our scans, which effectively means telling the malware cop to look the other way, or do a search and delete it by hand, which we did.

For the most part, the bundled software firewall worked well, although with the antivirus program now blocking port scans, the firewall seems a little redundant. Still, we had a couple problems with the firewall. First, when tested over a 56-Kbps dial-up connection, the firewall slowed the connection down to the point where e-mail sometimes timed out before it could be delivered. Second, the default settings blocked a Microsoft Windows 98 system from the network entirely, which generated a network port error even though the real problem was the firewall. Like any firewall, the Norton program needs to be configured to work well with your specific system.

The security suite comes with strong privacy controls, although following good practices would make some of them unnecessary. But one feature impressed us. You can set up the software so that your credit card and personal information are easily shared with sites you choose, such as Amazon.com or CDW.com. However, if someone uses a phishing scam to lead you to a similar site, the software won't be fooled even if you are.

Overall, Norton Internet Security 2005 does a great job protecting systems, whether nestled behind other server-level protection or out in the wild defending itself. It's a good choice for protecting remote and mobile workers, or for adding security inside the firewall.

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