REVIEW: Norton Hotspot Privacy

A new service from specialist security vendor Symantec, the rationale behind Norton Hotspot Privacy is very straightforward. Imagine for a minute that you’re a mobile user, with a laptop, tablet or smartphone, looking to connect to the Internet to, perhaps, check your e-mail or pay some bills.

That shouldn’t be a problem as there’s bound to be a free Wi-Fi hotspot nearby. However, like most such services it will probably be unsecured, which means that anything you send or receive, including bank account and credit card numbers, passwords and so on could be captured and used for nefarious purposes.

Norton Hotspot Privacy tackles this issue head on, enabling you to connect to the Web via an otherwise insecure Wi-Fi hotspot, safe in the knowledge that all your data is encrypted. A feat it achieves by creating a Virtual Private Network (VPN) tunnel between you and the hotspot so that, even if the connection is intercepted in some way, any data you transfer can’t be used.

How it works

Norton Hotspot Privacy is a cloud-based service that uses a small VPN client installed on your PC, tablet or smartphone. Whenever you connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot this will locate a Symantec VPN server out on the Web and negotiate the creation of an encrypted VPN tunnel. The actual technicalities don’t matter that much, but for those who like to know such things Open VPN is used here with IPSec encryption for mobile devices and SSL for desktop computers (PC and Mac).

Everything sent between the VPN client and its host server is encrypted, whether browsing the Web or running an app, while the Symantec VPN server also becomes the default Internet gateway forwarding all communications out onto the Web.

The client is also authenticated to prevent hackers simply hijacking an encrypted connection, Plus you also get the benefit of a non-local IP address assigned over the tunnel, which can be useful when using services that are only available in a specific geographic location. In our tests, for example, we were variously assigned address that put us in either Leeds or California!

Good to go

Getting started with Norton Hotspot Privacy is easy. All you have to do is sign-up and pay for a license, download the client, install it and start working. The license allows you to use the service with up to five separate devices and can be purchased on a pay as you go basis at a cost of £49.99 for a one year, £19.99 for one month or £2.99 for a one-day pass (all including VAT) . Client software is available for most Windows desktops and Apple Mac PCs plus Apple iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch devices. The Apple client is delivered via iTunes. Android users, unfortunately, are not catered for, although an Android client is in development.

Mobile protection

We tested on a Windows laptop using a one-day pass. The client was quick to download and easy enough to install once we had gone through the somewhat involved licence registration process. That done, the client started up automatically ready to create a VPN connection. We had to do this manually the first time but you can change to automatically connect via Hotspot Privacy whenever an Internet connection is available.

As the name implies the main reason for using the Norton service is to encrypt a link to an unsecured Wi-Fi access point, either public or private. In addition, however, it can be used to protect a wired connection, which could be useful when visiting a new location and using an unknown network as a guest.

We did, however, run into some minor performance issues. Not so much on low bandwidth networks where the Norton client didn’t seem to make that much difference, but when installed on a network with a fast broadband connection, throughput dropped by as much as 10-15%. Due we suspect to the encryption overheads and capabilities of the VPN servers employed.

We also had to tweak the firewall on one of the routers involved to enable Hotspot Privacy to deliver the goods plus there are a number of other considerations, not least the existence of alternative VPN services, many available for a lot less and some even free.

In favour of the Norton product, the free services tend to have bandwidth and download limits whereas the Norton service has no such restrictions, plus it can be used on up to five devices, making it a lot more affordable. Added to which the other services are provided by relatively unknown Internet start-ups. Norton Hotspot Privacy is the first to come from a trusted big-name security vendor.

Summary

It is important also to understand that Norton Hotspot Privacy (and its rivals) only provide an encrypted tunnel between the individual user and the Internet. They do not deliver the kind of encrypted VPN solution companies of all size use to connect remote and mobile users with shared resources on the corporate LAN. Moreover, companies hosting their own VPN servers can provide the same kind of protection for free and anyone provided with a VPN client for remote working should ask if this is the case before buying a product like Norton Hotspot Privacy.

And lastly, Norton Hotspot Privacy doesn’t address the problem of malware. You can still be infected by a virus over an encrypted VPN tunnel so firewall and additional anti-malware protection are just as important as ever. Still, it does the job it claims, is affordable and easy to use, making Norton Hotspot Privacy a useful weapon in the security armoury of the mobile professional.

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