March 26, 2014, 12:40 PM — Services that mask your identity online can preserve your privacy, but they can also be slow and unwieldy. Disconnect said Monday it had tweaked and upgraded its search capabilities to improve its speed, while Silo, an anonymous browser vendor, recently launched a personal edition for individuals.
Neither service gives the full functionality of a virtual private network, which can route the data sent to and from your router through a private "tunnel" that can anonymize your own IP. Silo comes close, but it includes a deliberate handicap: It prevents audio from playing within the browser, which makes it unusable for viewing videos of any sort.
Disconnect: an improved version of "Do Not Track"
Disconnect surfaced last October, although company executives said the company's technology had been worked on before Edward Snowden shone a spotlight onto the NSA and its dissections of personal privacy. The service works as a plug-in for for Google's Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Apple's Safari, and the Opera browser.
"Demand for online privacy has never been higher," said Disconnect co-founder Casey Oppenheim, in a statement. "People don't want or expect search engines, Internet service providers, the government, and websites they visit to record and connect their searches with their real name. Unfortunately, this type of unwanted tracking of our search history and other personal information is all too prevalent."
Essentially, Disconnect anonymizes Internet searches by rerouting the search request from your computer through its own servers. It does not anonymize your IP address--requesting my IP address with the plug-in enabled and disabled returned the same result. But it does work to obscure the information you send a Web site, if you choose, blocking tracking requests both from the site itself as well as from third parties, such as ad networks. This can duplicate the functionality already built in to some browsers, which can turn on "Do Not Track" requests by default. The difference is that DNT politely asks a site not to track it; Disconnect attempts actively to block it.
Disconnect's detour model differs slightly from the "InPrivate" or anonymous browsing modes built into Bing and Chrome. When you search for "how to buy an engagement ring," those modes prevent the search from being recorded in your browser history, but the search providers know they originated from your computer. Using Disconnect anonymizes the search step, but once you choose a link, you're also choosing to reveal yourself.
In the search for "cars" shown below, for example, Cars.com is listed as one of the entries in the secure search results. Once you visit the site itself, Cars.com will see that visit coming from your browser, not Disconnect.
Disconnect's latest update, available today, makes those searches twice as fast as before. In my tests, it's more than fast enough for your own use.
Disconnect says that all queries are encrypted, and that it doesn't store any keywords, personal information, or IP addresses. It's possible that Disconnect's personal encryption keys could be compromised, the company admits, although it also uses techniques like Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Perfect Forward Secrecy to counter that. (If a key were compromised, for example, PFS was designed to ensure that just one account would be compromised, not the entire user base.)
Disconnect is free, although the company appreciate a payment of whatever you wish if you use the service.
Silo--secure, anonymous browsing, but that's all
So-called "cloud browsing" became one of the hot topics of 2011, when Amazon revealed that its "Silk" browser tapped into its own server network for additional speed, as well as intercepting exploits before they could hit its Kindle tablets. Authentic8's Silo browser originally took the same approach for businesses, offering a BYOD solution. Essentially, users could bring an iPad into their company, access whatever information they wanted, and then destroy any cookies or other information once the session was closed.
Last month, Silo for personal users debuted, offering security and anonymity through its cloud browser. Silo protects your IP address, and it also blocks cookies from being stored on your machine. This can be good and bad: On one hand, your can rest assured that your session won't be tracked by a third-party agency you don't know or trust; on the other, all of your data is being passed through Authentic8, a startup you probably don't know or necessarily trust, either.
And eventually, you'll have to do so. Authentic8 offers a no-risk one-month trial--you just download it and begin surfing, and the company doesn't even bother asking for a credit card. After that, however, Authentic8 will charge you $10 per month, with the first two months for free.
Nothing about the Silo browser is fancy. Because sound doesn't play back within the browser, that eliminates many common entertainment functions, including Flash games, which failed to load. Silo will also block cookies, such as stored passwords, although users can create "shortcuts" where you can store your credentials with Authentic8 for easier access to, say, your web-based e-mail.
General browsing was perhaps a beat slower than normal, but otherwise perfectly acceptable. You can download files through the browser (such as a JPEG or a game demo), but because they go first to Authentic8 and then to your computer, the download time basically doubles. Also note that because you're going through Authentic8's servers (where the file is presumably examined), it's probably a good idea to believe the company's warnings against downloading copyrighted content.
Both Silo and Disconnect are at least free to try. Just remember that in this day and age, few, if any electronic communications can be considered truly secure.