If you haven’t noticed, “ephemerality” and “anonymity” are now official buzzwords around consumer software apps — perhaps a not entirely surprising reaction to recent revelations around online privacy and surveillance.
So when I heard about a browser that promises to keep sensitive information secure and then vanishes “like a Snapchat” message, I was intrigued.
For the past week, I’ve been testing Silo, a browser from a Mountain View, Calif.-based company called Authentic8. This isn’t Authentic8’s first rodeo — the company also makes a similar product for business users — but this is its first consumer-focused application. Silo runs on Macs, PCs and the iPad, and costs $10 per month to use.
The idea behind Silo is that it offers a cloud-based, secure browsing session that is running on Authentic8’s servers. It creates shortcuts to dozens of commerce, banking and health websites, and is supposed to make the login process easier and more secure. While you’re using the browser, you’re protected from most cookies, or bits of text, that could be installed on your browser and keep track of the other sites you visit on the Web.
The browser goes away each time you close your Silo session, leaving no trace of your Web session. Well, almost no trace.
I’ve used Silo for more than half a dozen browsing sessions on my laptop and iPad. My conclusion is that if you are super concerned about the Web browser you’re currently using for financial transactions and health data, then Silo may be an option. But, for some consumers, the extra steps it takes to authenticate, and the sometimes-sluggishness of the browser, won’t be worth it.
When considering a product like Silo, it’s also important to understand the difference between anonymous browsing and secure browsing. When people think about anonymous browsing, Tor (or Tor’s Browser Bundle) may come to mind. Tor scrambles things up by sending your Web traffic through a complex network of nodes, or “hops,” essentially anonymizing your activity.
Silo does not mask your identity; it simply aims to create a more secure environment for you to browse in.
Some “regular” Web browsers also offer private browsing options. One example is Google’s Chrome browser. Chrome has an “incognito mode” (and Chrome, of course, is free). This is supposed to eliminate your browsing and download history, and delete new cookies after you close your browser windows. Google says its incognito browser is even resistant to cookies that are intentionally difficult to delete.
However, Silo maker Authentic8 likes to point out that browsing in incognito mode doesn’t obscure your IP address from sites you visit, which Silo does. And if you’re logged in to your Google account while using Google Chrome incognito, your search activities will still show up in your Google Web-search history.
To get started with Silo, you first download the desktop or iPad app, and set up an account using your email address. Then you’ll have the option to enable two-factor authentication every time you open up the Silo browser, which I opted into.
This two-step verification process was glitchy during my tests. The service wouldn’t send me a verification code via SMS text message when I requested one.
I had to close Silo, reopen it, and re-request the code via phone call. This worked every time, but I generally prefer getting a text-messaged code over one that’s phoned in. The company says it has been getting notices from wireless service providers that this part of the system might be experiencing delays.
Next, I had to enter a PIN code. The PIN-code numbers have randomized letters assigned to them, to thwart keylogging (when fraudsters record your keystrokes to try to gain access to your accounts).
When Silo launches, it feels like most other desktop apps, except it’s a Web browser with a wire-mesh background. It says “SILO” in huge letters, in case you forgot which browser you were using. At the top of the browser, below the address bar, there are tabs for a variety of website categories: Finance, E-Commerce, Travel, Health and more. Up to the right, there’s a settings key and a place where you can add bookmarks.
Once you go through the tabs and select your top websites — Amazon, PayPal or your bank, for example — these appear as shortcuts on the left-hand side of the Silo browser. Silo also offers password-management features: Once you log in to a website through Silo, you can opt to have your password stored in the system, and later on you can access these services with one click (similar to how the Safari keychain now works).
While I expected some sluggishness from a remote, cloud-based browser, trying to use Silo for everyday stuff could be frustrating at times. Sometimes it felt very slow. I mostly stuck to shopping and banking, and occasionally visited our Re/code website.
If you forget to close the browser before walking away from your computer, as I often did, Silo will automatically log you off after a period of inactivity — a welcome security feature.
A couple of other interesting notes about Silo: There are no audio capabilities from within the browser. The company is considering adding audio, but for now, this is one way to dissuade people from streaming video through Silo. Silo isn’t meant to be a Web browser for entertainment; it’s focused on the verticals I mentioned earlier.
Also, I noticed that ads didn’t appear on Web pages I visited during Silo sessions, but did show up on the same Web pages I visited on a normal browser.
Silo itself might disappear when you close the window, but does your data really vanish? Not exactly. Because it’s a remote browser that runs on Authentic8’s servers, there’s no log data or Web history on your computer.
But the company does store some login information for 90 days, meaning that it knows which websites you have visited. The company says it’s not aware of what you bought or sold on eBay, or how many times you visited Facebook, just that you went to those sites.
I can’t see myself continuing to use Silo regularly, but there is likely a very specific person out there who it might appeal to: One who likes the idea of a secure, session-based browser that generates a new IP address; or who doesn’t want cookies following him or her around the Web and doesn’t mind paying $10 a month for it.