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Spotflux: Finally, A Free VPN

Spotflux: Finally, A Free VPN

on March 22nd 2013

Cloak is a fantastic little VPN that protects your privacy and allows you to browse the Internet safely on your Mac. Unfortunately, you must pay a price for quality.

Or must you? The team at Spotflux doesn’t think you should pay for privacy, so they have developed a great little VPN that works on Mac, Windows, iOS, and soon Android. As with anything that’s free, there must be a downside, right? Let’s find out.

Bare Bones VPN

Spotflux is enabled upon launch.

Spotflux is enabled upon launch.

Spotflux has two main features: security and privacy. In other words, if you’re on a WiFi network that has no encryption, it’s the perfect way to ensure your sensitive information isn’t easy to access wirelessly. Any ill-doer could intercept your information if it’s being transferred over a public network. For the sake of your security, it’s worth using a VPN at the local coffee shop or library.

As with most companies these days, Spotflux says it’s using “the cloud” to protect your data. Since that’s now the generalized term for all computing on a remote server, this is indeed so, but it’s mainly a marketing technique. You can also run things through a proxy and then through Spotflux if you like using that additional server. However, the actual service is quite good on it’s own. You can choose between using it as just a VPN or with added functionality using filters.

Filters Block Ads, Malware, and Tracking Code

Spotflux has one very unique feature: filters. Instead of using an ad blocker like I do, you can just switch on the VPN and it will remove them from the pages for you. I didn’t find it as effective as some of the browser plugins out there, but it’s definitely useful when browsing the Net.

Use filters or keep them disabled.

Use filters or keep them disabled.

There are other filters, too. The service tries its best to stop malware from downloading to your computer. With a Mac, this isn’t as much of a problem, but it is nice to have that extra layer between the virus’ server and your computer. Lastly, the app blocks tracking code, or “cookies” as they’re more commonly known. I personally don’t need any of these “filters” — most people don’t, and they might even break some web apps — but they do act as an extra layer of security and not a whole lot of resources are used to have them running.

Regarding Reliability

For a free service, you can’t expect perpetual uptime. It’s good to want consistency, but never complete reliability. Spotflux, thankfully, is one of those services that maintains consistency. I did experience some random disconnects, but overall daily usage has been very smooth. My only complaint is that when I’m downloading a file, it stops and I’m unable to start it at that point. Since it takes a good 45 seconds for Spotflux to switch back on after a disconnect, things can sometimes become inconvenient.

What About This Whole “Free” Concept?

Lately, a lot of services have started out by being unconditionally free. From the perspective of a user, this is a great trait to see in an app or company. And it’s evident that, when the consuming party gets what it wants, all is well in the eyes of everyone else. Sadly, when you take time to look at the core, things are falling apart.

Apple's banner on an App Store promotion.

Apple’s banner on an App Store promotion.

As Michael Jurewitz explained in an editorial related to the matter, the free mindset that developers have can be harmful to the company, and even sometimes end user. The problem is that, while beginning well, the process of a free business model goes downhill due to one flaw: most companies don’t want to be non-profit. That’s why Twitter took the sponsorship approach, Facebook went crazy with advertisements, and App.net was born. It is possible to offer a service for free, but the price is one that users must pay.

Spotflux has it's money on mobile.

Spotflux has it’s money on mobile.

With Spotflux, I found it very hard to understand what the company would do for revenue. To help things along, I spoke with Chris Naegelin, co-founder of the service. Naegelin said that Spotflux is currently only free on the desktop; if you’re using a mobile device, the service is paid. “We also monetize during the install process if a user opts-in to one of our bundle partners such as Dashlane,” he noted.

Thankfully, the co-founder said that the company “[plans] to always have an unlimited free tier”. There will be a “premium” version available on the desktop later this year, but currently the free option is all that’s offered as a sort of starting point.

I asked Naegelin what the company’s plans for the future are and, while he said that most of them are confidential, he made it a point for users to know that there will be much more focus on safe and private browsing.

Simple and Functional

Spotflux is a great app. You won’t easily find another truly free VPN out there that’s the quality of this one. There’s not a lot in the app to go on about because it’s really quite simple. It’s not like the average user needs more in a VPN than what this one offers. The privacy features and malware protection are really nice and the servers have always been speedy enough for my needs. As for the moments of downtime, they’re not that bad — it just takes longer to enable the service.

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By Tony Fish, Principal of AMF Ventures and a member of Gerbsman Partners Board of Intellectual Capital.

Internet players wrestling for control of your footprint
Whatever the personal reason for joining and participating in social networking, the debate has moved from being fashionable to how the key social networking players can unwittingly extend their influence and control of you.   Facebook wants to move from the confines of their own social networking cloud and be able to monitise property outside of their immediate control; hence the introduction by Facebook of opengraph and ‘Like’. The understanding of these new tools is, however, being over shadowed by the privacy setting debate which is also critical to the new Facebook model and its new utility.  The privacy setting allows Facebook to gain relationship data (digital footprint) and together with the tools change the internet from a Google ad centric world, into a relationship dependant Facebook ad centric world.

Issue 101. Control of Privacy settings
It has become evident that social networks will live or die by their privacy policy. Most users appear capable of providing their own interpretation of what privacy controls they would like.  Good tools will enable users to control the level of inclusion or exclusion of information about themselves and thereby control how much they reveal of themselves selectively, with tools that they understand and control.  However, whilst privacy is about the change of control, private is what you have elected or selected not to make public and a company should not be able to elect to change this default or set it open so you have to close it.

Private to Public is not a binary setting
However, when the private/ public issues is represented using a simplistic model such as a straight line, as above, it shows them as a binary choice, with an area of cross over, in the same way good/ evil can be represented and both of these models highlight the inadequacies of the straight line of choice, and specifically with private/public it does not provide enough context or insight to the real issues.  In philosophy, Aristotle presented the idea of a Golden Mean as the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. For example courage, a virtue, if taken to excess would manifest as recklessness and if deficient as cowardice.

Applying the analogy from this philosophy to the private/ public debate removes the simple binary judgment and provides are two possible models.  Public is two extremes with private in the middle or vice-versa.  I “like” the public at either end approach as at one end public could mean broadcast TV, newspapers, open, contextual, edited and time bounded.  The other public could be internet public, closed, non-contextual, raw and timeless.  This removes the binary extremes and grey area of public vs private debate moving the debate away from privacy policy towards how we define and articulate public as two extremes.

To subtle to notice
When you consider what is private within these boundaries, it highlights some common assumptions.  Public tends to mean to the general population the broadcast TV model, where we instinctively know how little we should trust headlines but also how rapidly its value can be eroded.  However if this is the only understanding of public we hold, it is inevitable that users will miss the subtlety of the internet public model and the critical issues such as timeless (never deleted) and lack of context (provision of historical context when looking at past materials)

And the Problem is?
For social networking to remain free it needs a business model.  An attractive model is to take your digital footprint, analyse it and sell adverts based on your preferences and relationships.  However, to demand that users continually update their information is hard, therefore when they are out and about in the internet make it possible to “Like” things that automatically updates their profile (and attractiveness for advertising).  However to deliver this, users must change their privacy settings so that social networking site can exploit their data.  Therefore social networking site need to achieve several things.  First, make everything public, but users don’t understand what public means for Internet data.  Second, make it easy for users to deliver new information from outside their bounded network, but users don’t understand the implications.  Three, analyse and sell relationship data, but are users getting a fair trade?

Is there a trade fair?
Applying the understanding of the eight business model built in “My Digital Footprint” there should be a trade for opting for a more public use of your data.  In one direction towards broadcast the trade for your privacy may be for fame and fortune, in the other direction towards trading your privacy on the internet it should be for services.

An interesting question becomes, in the trade for your Internet privacy, is there sufficient utility offered by the free application providers?  With Google you provide only public data (search key words, nothing is private) and you receive relevant search results.  With Facebook and social networking you provide relationship and private data for a free utility, but what is the utility?  Is it a tribe, is it communication, is it sharing platform, it is a representation of the physical you in a digital world, is it organisation or a new state or a new country, is it connection or is it a channel?   With such an unclear utility, why will users continue to provide more personal data?

Will Facebook survive?
Overall I have no doubt it will survive but in what form is a more difficult judgement call as Facebook has highlighted that the value of our relationships is sufficiently high that they need them and are willing to risk their Brand to get  more of our digital footprint.  The utility question, trade for our information and implementation of its privacy setting, however, does open up the possibility for new entrants.  It is naïve to say that inertia; my grandma and friends will not change, is enough to keep the social networking market closed. It is possible to your export data, difficult but this will happen.  It is not impossible to see that a new social media company will offer 50% of its equity to users as a trade for moving and privacy.  It also possible to see that your generic login becomes the mechanism to find unique discounts for you, all these open up the market and trade they I hope will provide a more even value balance for users.

So What!
Internet business models are predicated on the user being the provider of the data and the consumer of the data, with the business focussed on sitting between the two and adding value.  There is a battle for your data and relationships and therefore one of the implications of “my digital footprint” thinking is about the alignment of Brand values and the how the company protects and uses digital footprint data.

If you would like to chat about the opportunities that digital footprint data brings, especially from the perspective of mobile and real time feedback, please contact me at tony.fish@amfventures.com.  The book is free on line at http://www.mydigitalfootprint.com/ or you can buy it direct from the publisher at the web site. There is also a summary and a eReader/ Kindle version.

We hope that our Viewpoint improves awareness, raises questions and promotes deliberation over coffee. We will respond to e-mail, text, twitter or blog comments. http://blog.mydigitalfootprint.com

Kind regards,

Tony Fish

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