SurfEasy vows 'plug-in privacy'
Posted on Apr 22, 2012
You're frequently in front of someone else's computer. But whether surfing at an airport, library or client's office, you surely don't want the next person using the machine to know who you ogled on Facebook or which politician you read up on.
A USB by SurfEasy, a venture-backed start-up in Toronto, promises "plug-in privacy" when you browse the Internet from any public or third-party PC or Mac. The SurfEasy drive launches a password-protected browser that encrypts your cyberactivity without leaving any traces. No Web history, bookmarks, passwords or other personal information remain on the local computer. It's as if you were never there.
Instead, all that information is stored on the USB key. If you plug the drive into another computer — and enter the password you signed up with the first time you plugged SurfEasy into a USB port — you can access your surfing history, plus stored bookmarks and Web passwords. You might also be taken to the last site you visited, though that wasn't always the case.
Local searches are kept private. SurfEasy uses your Internet Protocol (IP) address to determine your whereabouts, but only tells Google for search purposes the city you're in, not your specific IP address. You can also disable the feature. SurfEasy's own IP addresses are in the U.S.; international locations are coming.
Employers and parents may not appreciate one other feature. The drive can help you bypass firewalls and other off-limit sites.
There's nothing complicated about SurfEasy's set-up: Just insert the drive. My first inclination was to insert it the wrong way because of where the logo is. Inserted properly, a blue light appears. You click an icon to launch the browser.
SurfEasy costs $59.99 and includes 2 gigabytes of encryption per month, covering about 45 hours of weekly Web browsing, the company says. If you plan to stream a lot of video or engage in multimedia-heavy activities while on somebody else's computer, you can purchase a $5 per month ($50 per year) 25-GB encryption plan or $10 per month ($100 per year) 75-GB plan. HD video chews up bandwidth in a hurry. You can track usage on the SurfEasy website.
SurfEasy says it uses the same industrial-strength encryption as banks. Internet traffic is driven through its own secure virtual private network. The browser is powered by Mozilla, the folks behind Firefox, so you can add Firefox extensions and plug-in software. Still, SurfEasy fires up a generic warning that the act may decrease privacy because add-ons could store information on the local computer or transmit data outside the encrypted SurfEasy network.
SurfEasy works with PCs dating to Windows XP and Intel-based Macs running OS X version 10.6 or later. A few Web pages took awhile to load, but I didn't detect slowness overall.
The drive arrives in a plastic credit-card-size holder that's meant to protect it from damage and prevent you from losing it. You can slide the USB drive back into the holder and stash it with the credit cards in your wallet. But the holder is slightly thicker than typical credit cards. The company says it considered different designs but rejected a keychain version. If you do lose the drive, the person who gets hold of it would need your password to access your information.
SurfEasy says its drive can last up to 10 times longer than a conventional USB drive and, as with a conventional drive, you can store extra files on it. (As with any browser, you can dispatch files to the usual Web-based storage repositories, from Google Docs to Dropbox.) Still, I fretted a little about the way the thin plastic tail hung out about an inch on the computers I used for testing — an accident waiting to happen.
If you need to go offline suddenly, you can yank the USB out of the computer without shutting down an application first. Whatever site was on the screen disappears.
You can employ any Web browser on the local computer at the same time you're using SurfEasy, but those browsers aren't safeguarded by SurfEasy. Same goes for local instant message or e-mail programs. To avoid confusion about which browser you're working in, a blue (or red, if encryption is turned off) SurfEasy tab appears to the left of the address bar at the top of the browser.
Modern browsers include tools that let you surf privately to some degree. And SurfEasy is not the only company trying to keep you anonymous online. But it is a simple solution for folks worried about privacy and security as they peruse cyberspace from a computer not their own.
$59.99, one-time purchase comes with 2GB of encryption. Premium encryption plans start at $5 month
•Pro. Simple USB drive lets you browse privately from any PC or Mac. Potentially lets you access off-limit sites
•Con. A pro can be a con. It can potentially let you access off-limit sites. Holder design won't appeal to all. Doesn't safeguard entire computer, just activities through SurfEasy browser.