Symantec's so-so spyware protection

Symantec's so-so spyware protection

Antivirus powerhouse Symantec takes aim at spyware with its free public beta of Norton Internet Security 2005 AntiSpyware Edition. The final version, due by midyear, will sell for about US$80, but my initial tests show it may not be your best bet for spyware protection.

Like previous versions of Norton Internet Security, 2005 is meant to be an all-inclusive security package for Windows 2000 and XP computers that includes necessities such as a firewall and antivirus protection in addition to its brand-new spyware detection app. As a result it's a big program, and a big download. The 33MB download installs approximately 314MB of files, 11 services, 3 startup items, 2 toolbars, and 2 Browser Helper Objects (BHOs), all of which results in 8 additional processes running in memory on the PC, which made my test system noticeably less responsive.

For this review I opted to test only the app's anti-spyware chops. To do so I subjected my test system to a dozen common spyware and adware apps, including Bargain Buddy, Hotbar, Huntbar, Internet Optimizer, ISTbar, Perez Toolbar, Total Velocity, Xupiter, and two variants each of StartPage and Downloader Trojans.

Mixed Results

I found Norton's sleek interface easy to navigate, and its option menus were well organised. But Norton's reporting of threats left me feeling less than secure.

Though Norton accurately identified and blocked the StartPage and Downloader Trojans, results with the remaining spyware and adware apps were mixed. Norton ignored both Total Velocity and Xupiter, and when it alerted me to Hotbar's presence, it recommended that I not only keep the program, but also that I allow it full Internet access. Similarly, when Xupiter and Total Velocity tried to connect to a DNS server, Norton recommended that I allow full access for both.

Despite its advice to keep Hotbar, however, Norton continually complained about its presence. This created an endless loop of alerts, followed by recommendations to keep the app, until I finally told Norton to remove it. When you do tell Norton to remove a program, though, it does the job well.

Another cause for concern: During installation, Norton AntiSpyware Edition enabled the Windows Messenger service and automatically assigned it full Internet access rights without asking my permission. This was a concern for me, as I had specifically disabled this service prior to installation because the Windows Messenger service is widely abused by spyware creators to force pop-up advertising on users' desktops.

The software also lacks the ability to restore a Web browser's hijacked start- and search-page settings, and it provides no protection against modifications of your Hosts file (essentially an Internet address book on your PC) - common areas impacted by spyware. In addition, when I tested the software on a system we had already infected with these hijackers, I found that Norton failed to reverse the changes when it did detect and remove the threats.

For the best overall protection, however, I'd recommend combining two separate products. I like Trend Micro's $50 PC-cillin Internet Security Suite 2005 for its virus protection, firewall, and spam filtering, combined with Sunbelt Software's highly effective $20 CounterSpy for spyware protection.

Mary Landesman is a tester for PC World.

Local information
Symantec Norton Internet Security 2005 AntiSpyware Edition
Beta product, not rated
Confusing alerts put the onus on the user to second-guess Norton's recommendations, but when the program does remove spyware, it does an efficient job.
Street price: beta free to download; final version $US80.

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