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Cyber watchdog for the home

Security outfit Trend Micro's latest product is not another version of its well-known security software, but a "plug-and-protect" device to fend off cyber attacks.

Dubbed Home Network Security (HNS), this appliance monitors the network traffic between your home router and your connected home devices for cyber threats.

While you can install security software on phones and computers, this is often not possible for connected home devices such as security cameras, game consoles and smart TVs. Hence, the introduction of security appliances such as the HNS, which debuted in late 2016 but is only just making its way to Singapore this month.

A valid subscription is required for the appliance, which comes bundled with a two-year subscription for $299, to function. Subsequently, it costs $99 a year.

It is a black box slightly larger than my palm, like an Android TV box. Connect it to your home router via Ethernet cable and install the companion Home Network Security smartphone app (available for iOS and Android) to get started.

Not being an expert on cybersecurity, I cannot attest to the effectiveness of the HNS' security features. But part of its job is to protect users from themselves - for instance, stop them from clicking on a phishing website.

And the anti-phishing feature worked as advertised. A Trend Micro Web page popped up to warn me when I tried to visit a couple of known phishing websites. During such an attempt, I was blocked by my Asus home router, which comes with a similar security feature (AiProtection) powered incidentally by Trend Micro.

  • FOR

    • Cyber protection for all devices in the home network

    • Comprehensive parental controls

    • Less impact on network performance compared with security router

    AGAINST

    • Parental controls can be bypassed by VPN

    SPECS

    PRICE: $299 with two-year subscription

    FEATURES: Intrusion prevention, dangerous site and file blocking, parental controls

    SMARTPHONE APPS: iOS and Android

    CONNECTIVITY: Gigabit Ethernet port

    WEIGHT: 226g

    RATING

    FEATURES: 4/5

    DESIGN: 3.5/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4/5

    VALUE: 3.5/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

Yes, some routers, such as the McAfee-powered D-Link D-Fend that I tested earlier this year, now have similar home security functions as those in the HNS.

Trend Micro said its appliance has more security features than the version found in Asus routers. The firm also said that the HNS has its own processor and memory, which means its impact on network speed is minimal (less than 1 per cent decline in network speed based on Trend Micro's data). Security routers on the other hand have to split their computing resources between their networking and cyber guardian roles.

The other reason to get a security appliance is for its built-in parental controls, which can be used to restrict Internet access on specific devices in the home network.

Using the smartphone app, you can create a profile for each child and the devices he uses so that any restrictions apply to all his devices. Web filters are sorted by categories, such as adult content, and can affect both websites and apps such as Facebook. You can also add your own sites to either allow or deny access.

Alerts are sent to your smartphone via the app if a user attempts to visit a restricted website while a report page lets you see at a glance all the activities by the user, including the total amount of time spent online. I found the app's pause Internet and pause YouTube shortcuts very convenient.

In my testing, there were instances where there was no pop-up page to inform me that I was blocked from the page because of the parental controls. Trend Micro says this is because this pop-up page (for malicious or blocked websites) will appear only if the website is not secured by HTTPS encryption. In such cases, the affected user may mistake his restricted access as an Internet connection issue instead.

The parental control feature also cannot detect the use of a virtual private network (VPN) service that encrypts data flow. Trend Micro says a software update in the next few weeks will flag devices that are using a VPN, which should let you know if your tech-savvy teenager is bypassing your restrictions.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2019, with the headline 'Cyber watchdog for the home'. Print Edition | Subscribe