Does the Norton Core router deliver? Plus 5 tips for home network securityby Peter Griffin
Here’s the dilemma of our modern hyper-connected world – we are linking more and more devices to the internet, but how do we make sure they are all safe from malware, viruses and hacking attacks?
Now think of all the devices that are coming online – TVs and security cameras, smart thermostats and locks, fridges and washing machines. The Internet of Things makes managing security on individual devices a nightmare.
The obvious solution is to cut all threats off at the pass, before they enter your network and infect your devices. That’s been the approach to network security for years – in the corporate IT environment.
For home users, it has been a bit more hit and miss, with the user largely responsible for managing firewall settings, antivirus protection and browser security. Most routers will have a basic firewall included, though most users wouldn’t know it or how to tell if it is doing its job.
The makers of wireless routers, which provide broadband internet access to hundreds of thousands of homes across New Zealand, have also been more concerned with the security of their boxes than the traffic flowing through them to your devices.
That’s starting to change and security software maker Symantec thinks it has the solution for the home with the Norton Core.
The Core is a wireless router just like many of its rivals with two big differences: its distinctive sphere shape gives it a stylish flourish unusual to routers, and it has in-built security software to protect any device connected to that wireless network.
Symantec’s Norton anti-malware software has been around for decades. Bar a rough patch in the 2000s where bloated software updates from the company dented users’ computer performance, as well as Symantec’s reputation, the company is trusted for its high-performing anti-virus and malware protection supported with constant updates and patches to address new threats.
You pay for the privilege with an annual subscription to Norton typically ranging from $75 to $230 a year depending on how many devices are covered. The same principle applies with Norton Core – you get a free one-year subscription to Norton Core Security Plus, offering the same protection on your devices, but also at the gateway to your network, so that every packet of data is inspected as it comes into your house via your broadband connection.
Much like with Google Wifi, setting up the Core is quick and simple – just plug it into your existing modem (that’s right, the Core doesn’t act as a modem itself) and insert Ethernet cables for your wired devices. A recessed pocket at the bottom of the Core accommodates one Gb (gigabit) WAN port, three Gb LAN ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a power jack, and a refresh button.
But it is fiddly in there when you have a number of cables plugged in, making the Core frustrating to handle.
The software set-up and configuration procedure is smoother. That’s done entirely through the Norton Core app on your android or iOS device, which guides you through a 10-minute procedure to set up the network and identify the devices that are connected to it.
This was as effortless as claimed, the app quickly establishing an overview of the network and assessing my Security Score via a colour-coded number it comes up with. Mine was a healthy green 472/500, giving me an “excellent” status. That main screen will also display the number of threats blocked, devices connected to the network, traffic scanned and the speed of your internet connection – the fundamentals of network health.
It’s fairly simplistic, but that’s the idea – giving you security at a glance. Drilling into the Core apps menu, you can see more detailed information and control device access to the network. You can set up profiles for people in your household linking them to particular devices. You can approve and block access to individual sites as well as categories of content and set daily time limits for internet usage. This really amounts to parental control, a feature increasingly allowing families to better moderate online activity.
You can prioritise network traffic to various devices, instantly shut off access to the entire network and set up a guest network so you can grant visitors internet access without handing over your Wifi password.
So how good is the Core at its, well, core business of detecting suspicious network traffic and blocking malware and viruses? PC Magazine carried out more extensive testing than I’m set up to and found it performed well across the major threat – “manual malware downloads, drive-by downloads, compressed malware downloads, and potentially unwanted app downloads”. It didn’t do so well however in PC Magazine’s test at identifying sites hosting potential phishing attacks – attempts to fraudulently gain sensitive information from you.
The software will detect and monitor any device that’s connected to the internet, including any IoT gadget, and will quarantine it if it starts behaving suspiciously. If you bring a laptop home that has a virus on it, Norton Core will detect it as soon as the device is connected to the network.
The app will display alerts when significant threats are detected or network users attempt to access blocked sites. Sadly, unlike many other wireless routers, the Core doesn’t act as a VPN (virtual private network), which necessitates you using an additional product to secure and anonymize traffic over the network, but network traffic is encrypted.
Fast and wide
The Core gets reasonably good ratings for its 2.4GHz and 5GHz dual-band radio wireless networking performance. It’s claimed that the single device should cover a medium-sized house, but like most wireless routers encountering the steel and concrete lift shaft in my apartment building, it struggled to provide uniform coverage around my apartment.
That’s in contrast to Google Wifi, which with two additional nodes ($599 for 3-pack) in a mesh configuration fills in the dead spots. The Core can be bridged to additional access points for better coverage, but the process is nowhere as convenient or cost effective as the mesh systems other router makers now have on the market.
Balancing safety vs cost
Norton Core will appeal to those who are willing to pay a bit more for peace of mind and a hassle-free approach to online security.
The app-based operation of the router makes keeping tabs on the network easy and the use controls offer an impressive array of tools to give parents peace of mind.
But the Core is at the more expensive end of the market for what it is and after that year’s free subscription to Security Plus runs out, you’ll be up for a $19 a month charge. That’s not too bad when you bear in mind it covers all devices connected to the network.
If you don’t subscribe, you’ll still be able to access the router’s functions and get firmware updates, but you cripple the security features.
As Symantec points out: “Because the subscription is integral to the router’s security, all network, IoT, and device level security, plus parental control features will be unavailable if the subscription is not renewed.”
So how much is your online security worth to you? If you are getting by just fine with free or cheap security software and managing things on a device by device basis, the Core will be overkill. If you want protection and control as your wireless network begins to host more and more devices, Norton has you covered.
Easy set-up and app-based use
Good network performance and security
No included modem or VPN
Security reliant on subscription
Price: $449 (subscription $18.99 a month after 12 months)
5 tips for home wireless network security
1. Change the router’s default details
Out of the box, your new Wifi router will come with a default password, or increasing a set-up app will prompt you to choose one.
If there’s a default password, change it immediately, choosing as complex a password as you can remember. Some routers will have an additional administrator’s password, which you will use to log into the router’s management console rather than for just accessing the Wifi network for internet access. That admin password needs to be really strong as once hackers are in your network they can start intercepting traffic to devices connected to the network.
Also change the default SSID that comes with the router. This is the name that is broadcast to all devices in the vicinity looking for Wifi networks. Often a default name such as “Linksys” or “Netgear” will give clues to those attempting to break into your network. You don’t want them guessing default passwords or trying well-known exploits to access your network to syphon off internet access – or worse.
2. Encrypt your network data
Any good router will support encryption which effectively scrambles all of the data transmitted over that network, typically using a 64-bit or 128-bit encryption key, making it all that much harder for hackers to intercept your data and steal sensitive information.
On set-up, you’ll often be prompted to choose an encryption setting. These are a complicated jumble of acronyms - read this article to tell the difference between them.
Ideally what you want to have enabled is what is known as WPA2 (Wifi Protected Access II), the most secure protocol with ‘AES CCMP’, considered to be the most secure type of encryption. Check your router’s user instructions to find out where to change your encryption settings.
3. Use MAC address filtering
Every device on your wifi network has its own MAC (media access control) address. In newer app-controlled wifi routers this is simply referred to as identified or unidentified devices on the network, which you can easily control.
By default, most wifi networks will grant anyone access to the internet who has connected and entered the correct password. However, you can also lock down the network so that only devices pre-approved MAC addresses can connect. This can cause a bit more hassle if you have new devices coming onto your network regularly as you’ll have to approve their MAC addresses before they can surf away. But it helps ensure that only the devices you know and trust will be able to operate on your network.
4. Turn it off when not in use
A dead wifi network can’t be hacked or exploited to steal your internet access. Unless you are connecting remotely from work to monitor a networked security camera or remotely access a computer or storage device, there’s no real reason to keep your wifi network on when you are away from home.
This particularly applies when you are away for extended periods on holiday. Simply turn off the router to avoid attempted exploits while you are away. In addition, it is also good to regularly turn off and reboot your router to flush its memory and trigger new firmware upgrades.
5. If you have security features, use them!
There is probably more security in your wifi router than you realise. Many models come with a built-in firewall which can be used to monitor traffic and block known threats.
Some people turn off the router firewall because they are too sensitive, blocking innocent traffic and annoying the hell out of the user, who just wants to surf the web. However, it is worth getting to grips with you firewall settings to give you a layer of security in addition to whatever firewall and antivirus software you have running on your devices.
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