Whether it’s at Starbucks, the mall or Motel 6, free WiFi hotspots are popping up everywhere. While you’re using those hotspots, you might unknowingly be giving away some seriously personal information to an opportunistic hacker or two, including your social network, email, and even your online banking account login credentials.
With personal information like that at risk, you might be tempted to stop using those free hotspots altogether, but an app called Cloak by Bourgeois Bits hopes to alleviate those risks by providing Mac users with a corporate grade VPN service built into a consumer level app. Read on to see if Cloak really is the perfect companion to public WiFi.
The designers of Cloak wanted to make it really easy to use, and they succeeded. The app itself sits unassumingly in the menu bar, waiting to be activated. When you click on the icon you are presented with your connection status, the option to connect or disconnect as well as options to “Spread the Word” and quit; that’s it. There is really nothing to configure, just click connect and get going. The preferences are similarly bare, you have to option to set a hotkey to activate Cloak as well the ability to set up Growl notifications. In addition you’ll also find your account options, which we’ll touch on later in the review.
Using Cloak to browse the web.
Cloak works independent of browsers or other apps meaning that whether you’re using Safari, Chrome, or any other browser, you’re protected, which gives it a leg-up over similar browser dependent extensions and add-ons.
That also means that Cloak isn’t limited to just browsers, it protects all web traffic on your Mac including individual programs. I found the app’s minimal interface is refreshing, you don’t have to worry about servers, encryption, or anything else technical, it just works. In fact, this review is being written at my local Panera using their free WiFi and Cloak. It’s fast, simple, and secure. If iCloud (nee MobileMe) is Exchange for the rest of us, then Cloak is VPN for the rest of us.
How it Works
Cloak’s interface is deceptively simple, beneath the hood there’s quite a bit going on. It works essentially like any corporate VPN, by using public Internet to access a secure, private network. They power their backend with the venerable OpenVPN which is an open-source SSL/TLS VPN implementation. That’s geek-speak for very secure.
Since Bourgeois Bits is a relatively new company I was glad to see that they do not host their own VPN servers, rather, they piggyback on AWS, Rackspace, Linode, Zerigo, and Gandi.net, which means that you should almost never experience any downtime. In addition, Cloak has technology which allows it to choose the server nearest to you, which should prevent your connection from becoming slower based on the location of servers.
While you probably shouldn’t use Cloak for watching videos, it can be done. Just remember the speed of Cloak is dependent on the speed of your WiFi connection. Long story short, Cloak is technically on par with many large IT networks. Bourgeois Bits has a much more in-depth look at how Cloak works on their website, which you should check out if you need to know the nitty-gritty details.
Where it Falls Short
Cloak goes far beyond a traditional proxy and I can easily recommend it for anyone who uses public WiFi frequently. That being said it’s not perfect. Thanks to HTTPS, Cloak might be overkill for most people and you’ll have to decide if it’s worth the monthly fee based on your situation. In addition, connecting to the Cloak VPN takes a while and when you are up and running the connection drops more than I’d like it too.
Connecting takes a while.
Finally, when you are connected to their VPN, Cloak only offers time tracking in lieu of a full usage meter, this is a bit perplexing as only the free plan restricts your usage time, the paid plans all charge you based on data usage. While there are plenty of apps for the Mac which can monitor your bandwidth, it would be nice to see it built into Cloak.
Since you are redirecting all your traffic through their servers Bourgeois Bits charges a monthly fee for using Cloak for more than two hours or up to one GB of data, whichever comes first. The plans offer 20 GB and 50GB of traffic a month for $8 and $15 respectively, which should be more than enough for email, social networks, and even some music or video streaming on a fairly regular basis.
Bourgeois Bits also makes free apps for the iPad and iPhone which share your Cloak account, you won’t have to pay twice, but the usage is shared.
The only real way to know which plan to choose is to monitor your usage of free WiFi, frequent travelers or regulars at coffee shops should obviously consider a more expensive plan.
Public WiFi isn’t safe and Cloak fulfills its promise to protect you, but at a cost. Only you can decide if paying the monthly fee is worth it. With new protocols such as HTTPS, the need for an app like Cloak might be less urgent, and many people will be willing to settle for a combination of HTTPS and the free TOR browser to protect them.
That being said, if you can live with the occasion service hiccup or slow connection, Cloak is the simplest and most comprehensive way to protect yourself when on an open WiFi network.