Norton Internet Security 4: A Comprehensive Suite

| In-Depth Review

NOS 4 box

Macintosh security is a hotly debated subject for various reasons, including the scarcity of viruses. In fact, the number and severity of viruses is just a very small piece of the big picture. Those who really understand security know that a comprehensive security profile for the Mac is required to deal with threats via the Browser, port/firewall breaches, sensitive data protection, application sandboxing, defense against phishing, and identification of hostile IP addresses. Moreover, the optimum security profile changes with user location. Norton Internet Security (NIS), a bundled suite of three apps, handles all that and more with user friendly UIs.

An analysis of the modern threats to a Mac user will discover that there are many different ways to attack a Mac, via technical means, and the user, with social networking. While Mac OS X, based primarily on the open source FreeBSD, has some key architectural differences compared to Windows, it isn't completely invulnerable.

In addition, modern Mac users are heavy users of the Internet, whether it be research, entertainment or data management, such as MobileMe. These users don't have the expertise to look at logs and determine whether some event is a red alert or a red herring. As Apple has noted, users want to feel secure thanks to the expertise embedded in the OS as well as a security app they have selected and paid for, but they don't want to be a slave to geeky UNIX stuff.

What's New in NIS 4

NIS 4 takes a comprehensive approach to all threats so that the users can select which areas to focus on, depending on their expertise and concerns. Version 4 provides management in five key areas:

  • Application Control - Manages which apps can access the Internet.
  • Firewall Controls - Manages connections and see who's connected to the Mac.
  • Identity Protection - Identifies fraudulent Websites and locks down personal data.
  • Location Awareness - Adjusts the level of security based on user definable profiles and locations.
  • Blacklisting - Accesses the DeepSight Community, the list of hostile IP address maintained by the U.S. Government.

Managing a Myriad of Settings

A robust security suite can't function if the settings are too complex to comprehend, if the UI is confusing, the defaults are poorly selected, or too much information is presented that distracts the user.

One of the most important design criteria for NIS 4, according to Mike Romo, the Product Manager, was to deal with exactly those four issues. Popups explain details to the user if asked for, Macintosh principles for UI design were adhered to and defaults gracefully select the most conservative setting and leave it to the user to adjust if necessary. Finally, if logs or more detailed data is desired, the user can drill down. Or just let the app do its job.

NIS 4 firewall

Also, Mr. Romo didn't mention the benefits of keeping the three apps: Norton Firewall, Norton Confidential and Norton Antivirus separated. However, trying to merge all of them for the sake of doing so would have been a mistake in this reviewer's opinion. Keeping them separate avoids errors in the code, keeps each app focused, and allows the user to focus on the task at hand.

Installation

Applications like this use kernel extensions (.kext) to monitor IP traffic, and if the user has some other applications already doing some of these tasks, there could be conflicts. For example, prior to this review I was using the highly regarded Objective Development's Little Snitch to monitor outgoing connections and Intego Virus Barrier to catch malware -- since my job has me living on the Internet in a wide raging fashion. Both of those apps have uninstallers, and so I removed them before installing NIS 4 and rebooted to be safe.

NIS 4, by the way, also comes with an uninstaller.

The installation is via a package installer (.mpkg) and takes about 60 seconds on a MacBook Pro. Right after installation, the DeepSight and Virus databases are checked and brought up to date.

Administrator privileges are required because of the .kext files installed. Any user with Admin privileges can run and configure NIS 4 if it's placed in the /Applications folder.

The app automatically starts a series of screens that enable or disable some basic settings, such as location awareness, phishing protection, and an alert bar in each Web browser launched. (With user permission.) Finally, the user is asked if the apps should be put in the dock and whether feedback to the DeepSight community should be allowed for their analysis efforts.

NIS 4 Setup

At this point, with the standard defaults, most users can just sit back and relax. Updates to the virus definitions are done automatically, in the background. If the user is tired of Mac OS X's Finder and others apps constantly reporting back to Apple, those apps can be identified and blocked. Other apps that appear to be reporting in for more than just an occasional version check can be blocked, just as with Little Snitch.

Configuration

There are no formal preferences for these apps because each app is basically its own configuration control panel for the three classes of settings: Firewall, Viruses, and Confidentiality settings.

In a very nice hierarchical fashion, vertical tabs select the major categories, statuses are clearly marked, and on/off radio buttons are displayed. Then, if the user wants to dig deeper into the configuration, there is often a button that takes the user into deeper settings.

NIS 4 Confidential

The look is fresh, technical and professional without being either condescending or overwhelming. The apps treat the user with respect because, after all, this is serious business.

Access Control

In addition to the normal virus scanning and firewall functions, the user can also dictate whether certain files can be accessed or whether specific data can be outbound to the Internet, for example a social security number or account names and passwords.

The permissions go over and above the UNIX permissions to control who can access, modify or delete specified files.

Note: NIS 4 uses its own firewall not the built-in firewall (ipfw) used by Mac OS X. So Symantec strongly suggests that ipfw be turned off. (The Mac OS X firewall setting is found in System Preferences -> Security -> Firewall.)

One of the things I often forget to do, when I travel, is to turn off Apple File Sharing (AFP). NIS will detect when you've changed your location and turn that setting off if so instructed ahead of time. This is a very useful feature.

A Network Operations Center in Your Pocket

If it isn't clear already, excellent Mac security goes well beyond the petulant claim, seen in many forums, that Macs have no virus written for them and the UNIX OS plus Common Data Security Architecture (CDSA) take care of the rest. In fact, comprehensive security for Mac OS X not only involves many different technical elements, but is also ever changing as the bad guys on the Internet develop new techniques and dispense with old ones.

For example, modern UNIX daemons no longer cough up their identity just for the asking on a port, and even Windows users have learned how to keep Ethernet ports closed. So now the bad guys come riding along on port 80 when the results of a Web page are returned via HTTP. Phishing scams have strong elements of human psychology. New techniques will surely emerge. Just the act of using NIS 4 provides a sober introduction to the various ways Mac OS X security and sensitive personal data can be compromised.

Those users who have their appetite whetted for yet more information will find lots of useful resources from Apple on their IT Pro Web pages.

Documentation

In addition to the Read Me file, which has some technical notes, there is a 26 page User Guide that mostly deals with installation and support. The applications themselves are self-documenting in that the user can dig deeper by clicking on the "?" mark on any of the configuration pages. I found the deeper technical explanations to be useful in terms of layout and clarity, telling the user how to get something done without delving into technobabble.

Issues

There is a cosmetic bug in the pre-release version of the Anti-virus component. Unlike the other two apps, the configuration window can't be closed by clicking on the Mac OS X red button. Mr. Romo said this will, hopefully, be fixed in a later patch.

I also had minor trouble with the Firewall app. Even thought I check the box "Don't ask again..." the firewall was persistent in asking for permission to let PathFinder and BBEdit access the Internet. Explicitly adding PathFinder to the application list solved the problem.

NIS 4 App blocking

Bottom Line

Little Snitch has been an essential app for me for a long time, and the addition of Intego's Virus Barrier has likely made for a necessary but insufficient suite of security apps. I like the idea of a comprehensive package with easy to understand settings and all my my needs met in one place. I especially like the inclusion of the DeepSight blacklist of IP address, something no mortal can or should try to maintain individually.

NIS 4 Advanced

More importantly, if a user would try to duplicate the functionality of NIS, with individual apps, Mac OS X features, such as encrypted .dmg files, and security policies, it's likely more time and money would be spent than the asking price of NIS 4. Experts will always do things their own way and find fault with commercial apps, but for the average Mac user who wants to "set and forget," NIS brings together the essentials of high-level Mac personal security in a simple, understandable way.

Availability and Pricing

Norton Internet Security 4 is available immediately, in the U.S., in the Symantec online store for US$79.99. A packaged version will hit store shelves the first week in January, 2009. The price includes a one year subscription to Symantec protection updates. A bundle, that includes NIS 4 and NIS 2009 for Windows, designed for Mac users also running Windows is priced at US $89.99.

The license is for one machine and one user. No family pack has been announced. That idea was suggested to Mr. Romo, but it remains only under consideration.

NIS 4 requires Mac OS X 10.4, Tiger.

Product: Norton Internet Security 4

Company: Symantec

List Price: US$79.99

Pros:

A comprehensive suite that deals with modern security threats to the Mac. Great thought put into user interface design. Location aware. Conservative defaults. Easy to set and forget, yet more experienced users can dig into the details and logs. Command line access for UNIX experts.

Cons:

None.

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7 Comments Leave Your Own

EdjOfGoleta

Wow. Good review. Very thorough (possibly with the exception of my fears below), well-written and interesting. Sounds like a great product.

My major qualms: How much will it slow down my Mac and what are some of the more common problems that will occur in terms of it not playing nicely with other apps & such (e.g., using FireFox with NoScript)?

In the past couple of decades using various Symantec/Norton software, I and every other user I’ve ever talked to have experienced problems ranging from annoying to wretched with these products (and with Symantec’s competitors, too). The overall system slow-downs and system corruption have been particularly loathsome and frustrating.

I hope these complications have been resolved over the past few years while I’ve been steadfastly avoiding all Norton products. I would appreciate your addressing these issues. I want Norton to be good. I want to believe.

gm600

the new norton products (2009) are very conservative on system resources.  norton finally listened to all the complaints.  i run norton internet security 2009 on my pc and saw no slow down, which was not the case with 2007.

EdjOfGoleta

Thank you, gm600; that is very welcome news! 
 
I would be extremely appreciative if others would comment on these issues, too.

ldenning

I’m concerned that the Norton Website seems to say that this is an integrated version of Norton Antivirus 11 for which I’ve seen many negative comments for slowdowns. I’m afraid that this is not updated antivirus technology on the Mac side.

EdjOfGoleta

Sad but not unexpected. Thanks for the tip, ldenning!

tarzan

Hi:

Before you marry her - Have a look at her mother.

Integro offers a 30 day trial for all of their products, but Symantec, apparently, Does Not. I have been clicking around, without success, Symantec’s website trying to find a link to download a trial for Norton Internet Security for the Mac.

How come Norton thinks I am going to be so sure about their products for the Mac, that I have to pay upfront.

EdjOfGoleta

One should definitely date someone before marrying them…

You make an excellent point, tarzan. Thank you for contributing!

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