Review: Symantec's firewall secure, but confusing

Norton Personal Firewall offers effective tools for agencies to protect remote units, but they're buried under a cantankerous interface

Despite your best efforts, some people in your agency are still using unsecured

systems, from notebooks used for travel to remote desktops. Hackers go for

easy targets, and nothing's easier than a stand-alone system used by home-office

workers.

A firewall should be your last point of protection from attacks, but it

may be your only viable option with stand-alone systems. After all, setting

up a router with a well-thought-out access control list (ACL) can be overkill.

For just such instances, Symantec Corp. has recently released Norton Personal

Firewall 2000.

Norton Personal Firewall provides an amazing amount of security — incoming

and outgoing — to any system. Unfortunately, the interface is a serious

weak point, creating a potentially intimidating and confusing experience

for the end user.

For example, upon installation, the main window displays the Status screen,

notifying me that my system was being protected. Two counters mark the number

of "blocked" and "allowed" accesses between my system and the Internet.

So far, so good.

Aside from Status, I also had the option of viewing the Security and Privacy

screens. The Security section helps stop intruders from unauthorized intrusions,

and Privacy helps protect from sharing personal information such as cookies,

credit card numbers and e-mail addresses, for example. Both the Security

and Privacy settings are adjusted by choosing low, medium or high settings.

While I was trying to figure out what the settings entailed, an alert window

popped up, demanding my attention. After studying it for a few moments,

all I could gather was that my machine made some sort of networking request

to another machine on my network, which triggered an alert from the firewall.

I was then presented with four choices: a one-time permit, a one-time reject,

creating a rule, or permanently ban this activity.

I wasn't sure what to do, but I picked the recommended option of creating

a rule. It went downhill from there. I was then faced with these choices:

always permit the network communication, never permit this network communication,

permit System total access to the Internet on all ports, or block System

from any access to the Internet on all ports. None of those choices looked

good, but I picked the first option. Then I was asked a series of confusing

questions about which specific machine addresses that I wanted to include.

Finally, I was asked to "categorize" my new rule. I still didn't have any

idea of whether I had just agreed to compromise my system's security.

Opening up a browser, another alert popped up, and I was forced to go through

six more intimidating screens forcing me to guess my way into creating a

security policy. I felt like I was being tried for a crime in a foreign

country, having little or no idea what I was agreeing to.

In between these confusing episodes, I managed to poke around the interface

to find a marvelous amount of security options and features buried inside.

For example, in the Privacy section, you can tell the application what personal

information you do not want shared with the outside world. Categories such

as credit card information, e-mail addresses and Social Security numbers

are preconfigured, requiring you only to fill in your information. That

way, anyone using the system cannot share that information with anyone else.

Also, the application has the ability to prevent a site from knowing your

machine's address, keeping your browsing habits personal.

The program can keep an extensive array of logs, from all Web sites visited

to connections made and content blocked. And there is a statistics page

that would make Alan Greenspan drool.

Unfortunately, none of those goodies could help it get past the fundamental

unfriendliness of the interface.

The bottom line is that Norton Personal Firewall offers an effective set

of tools for agencies to use to protect remote units. With that in mind,

I'd like to see Symantec ship a corporate version of the product that allows

information technology managers to centrally set up and remotely administer

custom rules for all machines not physically protected at headquarters.

The logs and monitors would prove invaluable to IT managers trying to optimize

network efficiencies and lock down remote machines while keeping the underpinnings

away from those who don't need to know. Security policies should not be

set by the users; they should be set by the IT administrators.

It's a shame so much good technology is buried under such a cantankerous

interface. To be fair, the more you use it, the easier it gets. But the

underlying problem with the interface is the fact that it asks the user difficult

questions about how to handle traffic in esoteric and ambiguous language.

I look forward to future versions of this application, but in the meantime, if you implement it in your department, be prepared to hold users' hands as they get used to the program.

—Jefferson is a freelance analyst and writer based in Honolulu. He has been

covering technology for seven years.

REPORT CARD

Norton Personal Firewall 2000

Score: C-

Symantec Corp.

(310) 453-4600

www.symantec.com/sabu/nis

Price and Availability: Available on the open market for $49.95.

Remarks: Norton Personal Firewall 2000 has a bevy of tools to protect dataand personal information on your unprotected machines. Unfortunately, theinterface is confusing and daunting, requiring the user to create a securitypolicy on the fly with little or no explanation.

BY Steve Jefferson
July 19, 2000

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