I used to have a joke about how most modern companies probably have a troll hiding in their basement, scrutinizing every detail of every log of every computer on the site. I still talk about the basement troll—but now I’m not so sure that it’s a joke. In an age where identity theft is a growing problem and everyone tries to monitor everything, taking steps to protect your privacy is a wise idea, even if it requires investing significant time and money. The StealthSurfer III by Stealth Ideas purports to protect your confidential information while allowing you to use e-mail and the web on anyone’s computer. After testing, I am convinced that the StealthSurfer is a trustworthy and worthwhile product.
The 1 gig StealthSurfer
The StealthSurfer is essentially a small flash drive (I tested the 1 GB version) that plugs into a USB port, much like any other flash drive. However, when you plug the device into a Windows-based PC, instead of immediately getting access to the storage space, the drive has only a “Lock” program. This program will prompt you for a four-digit code (the default is 1111), upon entry of which, the drive will unlock, allowing you to access specially packaged versions of the Firefox web browser and the Thunderbird e-mail client, as well as enabling you to make use of the drive’s storage space. Connecting the StealthSurfer to a computer running any other operating system makes it impossible to unlock it, rendering it basically useless (although it does work with Parallels and Boot Camp for Mac OS X).
The 512 meg StealthSurfer
There are essentially two primary types of privacy concerns when browsing the Internet from a computer: Can the owner of the computer gain access to private information?, and Can the owners of the web sites you visit gain access to private information?. The StealthSurfer takes on both questions.
Round 1: You vs. Troll
In order to prevent other users of the computer from collecting your private info, the StealthSurfer stores the browser, e-mail client, and all data associated with these programs on the drive itself, not on the computer. To test if this works properly, I plugged in the StealthSurfer, unlocked it, and logged into a web site that I am a member of (but had never previously accessed on that particular computer). After closing, locking, and removing the StealthSurfer, I checked the local copy of Firefox on the PC itself, and found that I was indeed no longer logged into the web site and that there was no sign of my activity in the “History” list. I also checked Internet Explorer “just in case,” and no traces of my personal info were left there either. What impressed me the most, however, was that when I reconnected the StealthSurfer, unlocked it once again, and used its copy of Firefox to browse the web, I found that I was still logged into the web site and that my history was stored fully there.
Although a USB 2.0 flash drive is generally slower than a computer’s internal hard disk, I was pleased to see that web-browsing performance was quite speedy; in fact, it was not noticeably slower than when running Firefox from the hard disk.
Stealth Ideas has also included a special version of the program RoboForm, which allows you to auto-fill fields on various websites. RoboForm uses encryption and password-protection, and as with the other programs, it stores its data only on the StealthSurfer itself. RoboForm also worked properly in testing, and its inclusion was a nice touch.
Round 2: You vs. The Web
So what about all the spammers, phishers, and scammers waiting in cyberspace to steal your info? To combat this problem, the StealthSurfer includes another program, called Anonymizer, which you can simply run and switch “on,” which causes you to surf the web through an anonymous proxy, preventing web site owners from seeing your IP address or other info. I tested this by visiting the web site http://www.whatismyipaddress.com, on which I found that my “anonymized” IP address was 188.8.131.52, which is not even close to my real IP address (which the site found correctly when not using the Stealth Surfer); presumably, this is the IP address of the proxy. The StealthSurfer also SSL encrypts all web activity.
It was also evident in other ways that the Anonymizer was working properly. For example, many ad banners on web sites will try to lure you to their site by guessing at your location (for example, an ad might say, “Meet someone in Denver!”). The ads are guessing at your location based on your IP and other personal info. When I encountered one such ad while using the StealthSurfer, I must admit that I felt a satisfying sense of victory when I saw the banner trying to tempt me to “Meet girls from Anonymous Proxy.”
Historically, anonymous proxy services of this type have had problems with what you might call “working too well” - they disabled so many features and functions that they made it impossible to use most web sites, giving you error message or improperly rendered content instead. The StealthSurfer, however, has made stunning improvements in this area; in my tests, every site I tried worked properly, even with the Anonymizer enabled.
The StealthSurfer handily allows you to choose which applications you want to start up automatically whenever you unlock it by modifying a file called autostart.txt. However, it is not so handy to track down everything running that is linked to the drive and completely close it down, making it difficult to eject or “Safely Remove” the device. Although removing the device “unsafely” is unlikely to jeopardize your privacy, there is still some risk of data loss or corruption or other problems—I would’ve liked a more automated way to close down all programs associated with the StealthSurfer, since even relocking it does not always prevent this issue from occurring.
The StealthSurfer also offers its users an opportunity to sign up for the Hushmail secure e-mail service (this generally happens the first time you run Firefox). Although you can get a free basic account, if you want to access your Hushmail via POP or IMAP, you will have to sign up for plans that start at almost $100 per year, making it one of the most expensive personal e-mail services available to individuals.
For many people, the strongest level of protection their personal info has is that, quite frankly, no one cares. This is not an ideal solution, since even one person or spybot deciding to care just at the right moment could facilitate identity theft, which could literally ruin your life. Although it doesn’t protect you from every possible spying system that could be installed on a computer, the StealthSurfer is powerful enough to banish most of the trolls back under a bridge.
Pros: Browsing is speedy, works correctly, and doesn’t leave traces on the host computer; anonymizer is effective; maintains your info between sessions; locking mechanism is simple and effective; includes RoboForm auto-fill program.
Cons: Supports only Windows; hard to eject.