Opinion: Symantec joins McAfee in selling useless mobile security

Galen Gruman takes a critical look at some recent products

A fool and his money are soon parted, and Symantec's Norton division is hoping you are a fool. Today, it announced that its Norton Anti-Theft has left beta and is now a paid service offering. It can locate and remotely wipe or lock your Android smartphone or tablet or your Windows laptop, starting at US$40 per year for the first three devices. The problem is, you already have this capability — for free — on some Android devices. McAfee introduced a similar service a few weeks ago for iOS, Android, and BlackBerry OS, also trying to get users to pay $20 each a year for something they likely already have. Remote locking and remote wiping are built in to several operating systems and can be accessed in most cases through an online tool, or in other cases via Microsoft Exchange or other mail servers. Often, both options are available:

  • Apple's iOS has long allowed remote lock and wipe of iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches using its free Find My iPhone service, which you can access from an Apple website or from any iOS device using the free Find iPhone app. You enter your credentials, and the service shows the current, or last known, location of your device. You can then send a message to that device; have it play a sound so you can, say, find it buried under a couch; lock the device; or wipe its contents. iOS also lets you set a required password to use the device and to set automatic wipe after a specified number of failed login attempts.
  • When the free iCloud service debuts this month, Apple's Mac OS X Lion will bring the same Find My iPhone capability to the Mac, using the same website or free app on an iOS device to find, message, lock, and/or wipe your Mac. Lion already has a whole-disk encryption option that can be set to wipe the drives after so many failed login attempts, has a facility for locking the bootup to a specified disk, and can be set to require a password to boot — all of which are surer ways to protect the data on a stolen or lost Mac than any remote-lock service.
  • iOS devices, Android 3 "Honeycomb"-based tablets, and many of Motorola's Android smartphones can be locked or wiped via Microsoft Exchange. Once they have been connected to an Exchange server, an IT admin can use the EAS (Exchange ActiveSync) capabilities in the Exchange management console to lock or wipe the device. Some devices, including iOS ones, can also be forced via EAS to require a password to use the device and to wipe its contents after a specified number of failed attempts.
  • Research in Motion offers a free service similar to Apple's for locking and wiping BlackBerry smartphones. The BlackBerry Protect service exited beta and became a formal service in September.
  • Samsung offers a similar location, locking, and wiping service (whose name seems to change with each product launch) for its Android tablets and some Android smartphones for those who register for a free Samsung account.
  • The many MDM (mobile device management) tools on the market offer remote lock and remote wipe for iOS devices, for many Android devices, and in some cases for other mobile operating systems. RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server provides these capabilites for managed BlackBerrys; it's available in paid editions for enterprise use and free editions for small business use. These MDM tools also typically let IT  require a password for employees to use the device and to set automatic wipe after a specified number of failed login attempts.

There's clearly no reason to use either Symantec's paid Norton Anti-Theft "scareware" service outside of Windows laptops, for which BIOS-level passwords and whole-disk encryption are cheaper, more certain options anyhow, or McAfee's paid "scareware" service. Don't be a fool.

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