Review: Symantec's firewall secure, but confusing
- By Steve Jefferson
- Jul 19, 2000
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
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
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.