As protections against garden-variety viruses and malware have become more effective, malware writers have turned to new ways to infect computers in the pursuit of profit. Two increasing threats are malware spread via bad Facebook links and so-called scareware -- malware that masquerades as virus-scanning software.
The beta of Norton Internet Security 2011 adds several tools designed to protect against those threats, along with other useful tools and tweaks. The result is a useful all-around security application aimed at keeping up with a fast-changing landscape where new threats are constantly emerging.
Scanning Facebook links
The new Facebook Scan checks links on your Facebook Wall and News Feed to see whether they link to malware or to sites known to harbor malware. When you start it up, the feature takes you to a browser page, where it reports on the progress and results of the scan.
In order to use the tool (which is actually a Facebook app), you'll have to give Norton Internet Security 2011 access to your Facebook stream. The tool also asks for permission to post the results to your Facebook page. The scanner doesn't require posting permission in order to work, though, so if you feel uncomfortable granting that permission, don't.
The labeling of the tool is somewhat confusing. You access it from the Norton Internet Security 2011 main interface, but on the Web page where the results are reported, it is labeled Norton Safe Web, which is the suite's browser toolbar. But there is no way to scan Facebook directly from the Norton Safe Web toolbar, and the toolbar itself makes no mention of a Facebook scanning tool (at least in this beta version).
I had trouble getting the Facebook Scan to work properly. It stalled at a "Generating results" notice that said it was scanning my feed for viruses. Clicking the "View results" button only started the scan again, and it once again stalled. When I closed the page and started the process again from Norton Internet Security, however, I did get results -- it reported that 27 of the 29 links it checked were safe. Results were pending on the remaining two links.
Each time I used the tool, similar problems occurred. It will clearly be a useful tool, assuming that it's fixed before the program ships.
One problem with combating scareware is that individual pieces are typically so new that antivirus signatures have yet to be devised to identify them.
The previous version of Norton introduced a "Download Insight" feature that checks files as they are downloaded, as well as files already on your system, to see whether they are "trusted" -- that is, whether other people have downloaded and used them safely. If a piece of software is not trusted, that means it may not be safe. In that way, you are steered away from installing scareware.
The newest version of Norton extends that feature, adding support for more browsers -- while the previous version supported only Internet Explorer and Firefox, the new one includes Chrome, Opera, AOL and Safari. It also supports many instant messaging, peer-to-peer and e-mail applications, including AIM, Outlook, Yahoo Messenger and Windows Live Messenger.
Norton also has introduced a free stand-alone application, Norton Power Eraser, that discovers and kills hard-to-find scareware that cannot be detected by traditional antivirus software. Once you download it, the application scans your system and sends the information to Norton's servers, which analyze and report on the results. Power Eraser will then kill the scareware if you tell it to.
Be aware, though, that Norton Power Eraser is a more aggressive system scanner than the normal Norton malware scanner and is likely to return more false positives. So it's a good idea, before taking its advice to kill a program, to do a search on what it finds to get a better sense of whether it's really malware. For example, on my Windows 7 system, Power Eraser reported "shellfolderfix" as being malware, when in fact it is add-on software that helps Windows better remember the size and position of Windows Explorer windows.
Other useful changes
The earliest versions of Norton AntiVirus and Norton's security suites were notorious hogs of system resources and RAM (as were many similar security suites). However, Symantec licked that problem, especially with Norton Internet Security 2010, which is relatively lightweight.
Norton's System Insight, which reports on how Norton's suite generally affects system performance, has been improved in the latest version. It now watches individual applications as they're being used, and creates profiles of their use. It also warns users when a program is using too many system resources and slowing the system down.
There are other useful changes as well, notably to the Norton Bootable Recovery Tool, which cleans your PC of really nasty infections without booting into your operating system. Think of it as the nuclear option of PC protection, to be used only when your system and operating system are thoroughly compromised.
The previous version of the Norton Bootable Recovery Tool wasn't particularly easy to use and required that you burn an .ISO image to create a boot disc. Doing that was beyond the capability of many users, so in NIS 2011, a wizard walks you through the process of creating the boot media. No understanding of .ISO files is needed. And the boot disc can now be created on a USB flash drive -- particularly important for netbook users who don't have a CD or DVD drive.
As with previous versions of the software, the suite also includes Norton Safe Web, a browser toolbar that tells you when search results turn up any potentially dangerous sites and alerts you when you visit one. As with earlier releases, a free version of the toolbar will be available, and there is a free beta available for download now.
In addition, the suite now includes a Reputation Scan feature that not only scans all the applications on your system and tells you their trust level, but also compares the overall trust level of the applications on your PC against the average trust level of other users of the software. (Trust level is based on a variety of factors, including the number of people who have the application installed and whether people have reported that the application is malware.) This is gives you a quick snapshot of the general overall safety of the applications on your PC.
The bottom line
The beta is available for free from the Norton Beta Center. Once it's downloaded, you have seven days to activate it for free by filling in a registration form. You'll get a 14-day registration period, then another 14-day registration period. After those periods end, you'll have to reinstall the beta to keep testing it. Norton does that because it expects a new version of the beta to be available by then and wants to make sure that only the newest versions of the beta are being tested.
Norton Internet Security 2011 offers some solid incremental improvements over the previous version of the suite, notably the ability to scan Facebook links and protect against scareware. When the final version of the program is ready, probably sometime in September, anyone using the previous version of Norton will be able to upgrade without additional cost, as long as they have a current subscription. And those who use other security programs would do well to consider it too.