Whenever I think about the internet and PC security, a saying attributed to science fiction writer Steven Brust springs to mind: “Just because they really are out to get you doesn’t mean you aren’t paranoid.”

The “they” in this case are the virus and worm writers, hackers, spammers, phishers and pharmers intent on stealing your personal information and money.

While the security features built into Vista are a big improvement, for instance, on earlier Microsoft operating systems, you still need third-party protection if you plug into the internet. Fortunately there are many third-party security tools, including free or low-cost options.

Examples of excellent “point” (single-function) products are Zone Lab’s free ZoneAlarm firewall (www. zonelabs.com), Grisoft’s free AVG antivirus software (www.grisoft.com) and Webroot’s $30 anti-spyware package, Spy Sweeper 5.3 (www. webroot.com).

But so-called “blended” threats have emerged and these require the installation of individual security tools that may not work together and can cause crashes. In response, most leading security software companies, including Symantec, McAfee, Trend Micro, Zone Labs and Kaspersky Lab, have built internet security suites by bundling tools into a single software package.

This is a good approach but first-generation suites were often strong in one area by being weak in another. Some were tightly integrated, others loosely assembled. Spurred perhaps by Microsoft’s entry into the PC security business with Windows Live OneCare, big suite vendors have begun to address these issues.

Symantec has responded with its long-awaited Norton 360 all-in-one security
suite/subscription service. I have been testing a pre-launch “beta” version for months and downloaded the final version last week. So far, I am impressed – though at $80 for a one-year subscription that can run on three PCs, Norton 360 is much more expensive than most.

I set out to find whether Norton 360 delivers on its promise of 360-degree protection and whether its price premium is justified.

It combines all the standard security suite features, including anti-virus, anti-spyware, firewall, intrusion protection and anti-phishing. But it also incorporates Symatec’s PC back-up technology and a module designed to eliminate the need to buy, manage and update multiple products.

It builds on Symantec’s popular Norton Internet Security 2007 suite, but aims to make fewer demands on users. The company says it designed Norton 360 to work as automatically as possible. Mostly, it succeeds. The suite installed smoothly, the interface is simple, clean and intuitive, and it is designed to consume fewer system resources than most suites.

Like Norton Internet Security 2007, anti-spam and parental controls are offered as an add-on, minimising system slowdown for users who do not need them.

Among its other innovations, Norton 360 includes Symantec’s new Sonartechnology, which will stop so-called zero-day attacks by detecting and preventing malicious behaviour.

To protect online transactions, Norton 360 taps the anti-phishing technology built into Norton Confidential. A green bar across the top of the browser reveals the status of a website, blocking known phishing sites while allowing access to “safe” authenticated sites and flagging sites whose status is uncertain.

But my favourite new element is the back-up feature. PC users know the importance of backing up but it is a chore that many still avoid. By building a variety of automated back-up options into Norton 360 and by automatically detecting and protecting new or changed files, Symantec has made back-ups simple.

Users can store back-ups of a range of media including local and remote hard drives, removable drives and writeable CD/DVDs. In addition, Norton 360 provides free 2Gb of offsite web-based storage space and you can buy more. This combination of local and offsite web-based back-up options representsis the best strategy for surviving a serious system crash and protecting valuable data.

Users will also appreciate the inclusion of a basic PC tune-up or performance optimisation module. The module identifies and removes unnecessary files and defragments the hard drive to improve performance.

Overall, I found Norton 360 easy to install and use and a good option if you are looking for a security suite with all the bells and whistles. But if you already have most of the components in Norton 360 installed – or recently bought a rival product – it is a tougher call.

THE BREAKDOWN

Norton 360

Pros: Easy to use, tightly integrated and comprehensive security service with solid local and online back-up features.

Cons: More expensive than the competition.

War on spies, bots and Trojans

PC security has changed dramatically as amateur hackers have been replaced by organised gangs of “cybercriminals” motivated by the huge potential loot in online fraud.

Their arsenal ranges from spam to Trojan horses, keyloggers and bogus e-mails sent by “phishers” that aim to steal personal information.

The language of internet security is strange, so here is a guide to terminology:

■ Spyware: a general term for software programs that covertly monitor your PC activity, gathering personal information, such as usernames, passwords, account numbers, files, driver’s licence or social security numbers. Some spyware focuses on monitoring an internet behaviour and transmits that information to another computer.

■ Phishing and pharming: popular forms of online fraud that trick victims into believing they are at a trusted website when they have actually been enticed to a bogus site designed to capture private information, steal their identity and drain their financial resources.

Phishers use spam, fake websites and other techniques to trick people into divulging sensitive information.

Pharmers rely on the same bogus websites and theft of confidential information to perpetrate scams, but are more difficult to detect because pharming redirects victims to a bogus website even if they type the right web address into their browser.

■ Trojans: Typically, a Trojan horse program presents itself as useful software but is often the first stage of an attack: the primary purpose is to stay hidden while downloading and installing a stronger threat such as a bot.

■ Bots: Short for “robot” these are some of the most sophisticated types of crimeware and are similar to Trojans, but earn their name by performing a wide variety of automated tasks on behalf of cybercriminals.

Hidden bots can be used for anything from sending spam to launching co-ordinated “denial-of- service” attacks against corporate or other websites. Usually the PC owner is unaware that their machine is part of a “botnet” or collection of bots.

paul.taylor@ft.com

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