Norton Internet Security 2011 public beta attacks new dangers

Symantec's latest version of its Norton Internet Security suite handles unsafe Facebook links and scareware

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 main screen of Norton Internet Security 2011.

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).

Norton Internet Security 2011 reporting on the results of checking a Facebook page for bad links.

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.

Battling scareware

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.

Norton Power Eraser is a free tool that can find and kill hard-to-detect scareware.

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.

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