Public Wi-Fi is scary, asserts Symantec, a Mountain View, California-based security firm that sells a whole host of consumer products. The Norton Wi-Fi Privacy app (iOS (opens in new tab)), which costs $30 per year, though, could make it less threatening, promising “bank-grade encryption” by routing your information through a remote private network. The program works exactly as advertised, but it doesn’t do anything you couldn’t do almost as easily for free.
First off, Symantec claims that “while public Wi-Fi is convenient, it’s never safe.” It’s actually rather difficult to find stats on how often users get attacked through public Wi-Fi networks. While it’s obviously not “never,” it doesn’t appear to be happening at epidemic levels, either. It would be much more accurate to say that “while public Wi-Fi is convenient, and it also carries a risk.” Now, the question becomes whether you really need to dish out $30 per year to protect yourself from it.
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Given the relatively limited scope of what Norton Wi-Fi Privacy does, my answer is an emphatic shrug of the shoulders. First and foremost, the program routes all of your online traffic through a proxy server. Norton claims that this server uses very sophisticated encryption, and while it almost certainly does, you have to take the company at its word on that.
The company also claims that it doesn’t rack or store your information, but Symantec would hardly be the first company to stretch the truth on that count, only to reveal it an embarrassing data breach later. For the record, I believe that Symantec is as good as its word, but I can’t prove that, and neither can the average consumer.
Furthermore, the program doesn’t really have a good understanding of what counts as a “secure” Wi-Fi network. I tried it with both my office’s (theoretically) airtight Wi-Fi network as well as a public network outside the Flatiron Building, and Norton insisted that neither network was secure. While it doesn’t hurt to route traffic through a VPN, even on an already-secure network, it does provide an extra step that could slow down browsing.
The program does have two useful features: VPN locations and ad-tracker blocking. The first, however, doesn’t work that well. In theory, it lets you connect to a network in one of 13 countries, making your phone appear to be in Germany, or the United Kingdom, or Spain, for example. This feature worked about half the time, in my experience, and not reliably enough to access video content from other countries. If you want to watch Doctor Who on the BBC website, you’re better off just using a dedicated VPN program like Hola — which is free, by the way.
Ad-tracker blocking is actually extremely helpful, and works exactly as Norton promises. On the other hand, you could download a privacy-centric mobile browser like Ghostery or DuckDuckGo and get even more nuanced privacy options without having to cough up a yearly subscription fee.
There’s nothing really wrong with Norton Wi-Fi Privacy, even though it's asking a lot of money for relatively little functionality. Still, given its limited options, uncertain claims and better free alternatives, there are probably better ways of protecting your info on public Wi-Fi networks.