If a website’s massive data breach compromises your privacy, there’s not much you can do. It’s out of your hands. But that doesn’t mean you’re completely helpless. There’s plenty you can do to protect your own privacy, things like encrypting your files, and protecting your passwords. Steganos Privacy Suite 18 brings together a variety of useful privacy-related tools. However, the quality of the tools varies, and the suite lacks some useful features found in competing products.
With most antivirus tools, security suites, and password managers, you pay a yearly subscription fee. That’s not the case with Steganos. For $59.95 you can install it on up to five PCs and use it for as long as you like. The only thing you don’t get is a free update to the next version.
Earlier editions of this product included VPN protection, but the current product lineup makes Steganos Online Shield VPN a separate product. As I write this, Steganos is running a promotion that gives you the VPN for free when you purchase the suite. Note, though, that PCMag’s Max Eddy gave this VP service just two out of five stars.
Getting Started with Steganos
After the quick, simple installation Steganos displays its main window. At the left is a three-by-three matrix of icons representing the suite’s features: Safe, Portable Safe, Crypt & Hide, Password Manager, Private Favorites, E-Mail Encryption. Shredder, Trace Destructor, and Privacy. The suite is effectively a launch pad for these utilities.
The right-hand portion of the main window is a kind of security progress report. Just by installing the suite, you start with a 20 percent security level. Creating an encrypted safe for storing sensitive files gets you another 20 percent, and setting up the password manager raises it by another 20. Using the password manager’s bonus ability to store private favorites adds 20 percent more. Configuring the Privacy components takes you to 100 percent. I like the way this simple report encourages full use of the product’s features.
Several components of the Steganos Privacy Suite are available as standalone products. I’ll summarize my findings regarding those products. To get full details, please click the links to read my reviews.
Steganos Safe 18 lets you create any number of safes, which are encrypted storage containers for your sensitive files. You can create safes on your PC, on portable devices, or in your cloud storage accounts. When a safe is open, you use it exactly like any disk drive. When it’s shut, its contents are completely inaccessible.
Steganos Safe is extremely easy to use, more so than most container-based encryption products. In addition, it offers some seriously sneaky techniques for hiding the very existence of your safes from prying eyes. For example, you can hide a fairly small safe inside an audio, video, or executable file. And the Safe in a Safe feature lets you dedicate a percentage of a visible safe for use as a discrete, invisible storage location, with its own separate password.
Along with the encryption tool, you also get Steganos Shredder, a secure deletion shredder utility. You can securely delete any file or folder by selecting Destroy from the right-click menu. With this tool you can also shred all of the free space on disk, effectively applying secure deletion to already-deleted files. It can also wipe any disk drive (except the active Windows drive) so thoroughly that a format is required when it’s done.
Steganos Password Manager 18 handles the basic tasks of password capture and replay, and includes a password generator. Unlike most competing products, it doesn’t directly handle syncing your passwords between devices; if you want syncing, you must connect to your existing cloud storage. You also get a limited ability to fill Web forms with personal data.
In testing, I couldn’t get the password manager’s Firefox extension to load. Also, some features worked in Chrome but not in Internet Explorer. If you get this password manager as part of the Steganos suite, you might as well use it. But if you’re shopping for a standalone password manager, there are much better choices.
The two standalone Steganos products I’ve reviewed account for five of the suite’s nine component icons. Password Manager and Private Favorites both correspond to Steganos Password Manager. Safe and Portable Safe are parts of Steganos Safe, as is Shredder. For the remainder of this review I’ll focus on the rest of the privacy components.
Encrypt and Hide
The name Steganos comes from the term steganography, which is not the same as encryption. The aim of encryption is to ensure that others can’t decipher your secrets. The aim of steganography is to conceal the fact that you have secrets. When you process a file through the suite’s Crypt & Hide component and then shred the original, a hacker or snoop won’t find any evidence that the sensitive data exists.
I don’t know precisely how this tool processes files—it’s not in the company’s interest to reveal such information. But here’s a simple example of how steganography could work to hide a file inside an image. First, picture that the file contains a list of numbers representing the exact color of each pixel in the image. Now round all those numbers so they’re even. That tiny change doesn’t make a visible difference in the image. Convert your secret file into a stream of bits, and step through the list of the image’s pixels, leaving the color number unchanged for zero bits and making it odd for one bits. You’ve hidden the file in a way that’s completely recoverable, but the image doesn’t look appreciably different.
Steganos can use BMP, WAV, or JPG files as carriers for encrypted data. The help system advises using a carrier file at least 20 times the size of the encrypted data. You can also use it to create encrypted archives without hiding them, much as you’d do with a ZIP archive utility. Note, though, that the archives created by Steganos use the proprietary EDF format, not the standard ZIP format.
To create a simple encrypted archive, drag files and folders onto the Crypt & Hide dialog, or browse to locate the desired items. You can also enter a text description of the contents. Clicking Save lets you define the name and location for the resulting EDF file. The password entry dialog is the same as that used by Steganos Safe and Steganos Password Manager. It rates password strength as you type, with the option to use a virtual keyboard, or to define the password by clicking a sequence of pictures.
To create an encrypted file and also hide it, follow precisely the same procedure, but click the Hide button instead of the Save button, and choose a BMP, WAV, or JPG file as carrier. That’s it. Your secret files are hidden within the chosen carrier. Don’t believe it? Launch Crypt & Hide again, choose Open, and select your carrier. Once you enter the password, your files are back. Of course you must use the shredder to destroy the originals.
As you use your computer and browse the Web, you leave behind traces of what you’ve been doing. Sure, you hid your secret plans using Crypt & Hide, but if MyWorldTakeover still shows up in the list of recent documents, you’re busted. In a similar way, your browsing history may reveal way too much about what you’ve been researching. That’s where TraceDestructor comes in.
TraceDestructor clears various types of browsing traces from Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Microsoft Edge. For Edge, it just clears cookies and cached files. For the others, it can also wipe out such things as history, autocomplete data, and passwords. It can also empty the Recycle Bin and eliminate Windows temporary files, recently used file lists, and other traces.
Cleaning up traces doesn’t take long. When the process has finished, Steganos advises you to log off and on again, for full cleanup. Simple!
Clicking the Privacy icon brings up a simple settings dialog with four on/off switches, all off by default. I couldn’t test Webcam protection, because my virtual machine test systems simply don’t have webcams. In addition, every time I opened Privacy Settings I got a notification from Windows that the webcam privacy component crashed.
Webcam protection does nothing but deactivate your webcam, so you must turn that protection off if you want to use the cam for videoconferencing. A similar feature in ESET Internet Security 10 lets you disable the webcam in general but enable specific programs. That would prevent webcam spying while still letting you Skype, for example.
Kaspersky Total Security also offers webcam blocking for all but permitted programs. It extends similar protection to the microphone, to head off the possibility of a snoop listening in on your activities.
Internet advertisers work hard to profile your personal surfing habits, so they can target ads based on your interests. If you’ve ever bought (or looked at) a product on one site and then seen an ad for that product on a different site, you’ve seen this process in action. You can set your browser to send a Do Not Track header with each request, but sites aren’t compelled to obey this header. The Prevent tracking option in Steganos filters out tracking activity before it reaches the browser.
Some trackers skip the usual techniques for tying together all data about your online activity, instead trying to create a fingerprint of your devices and activity, including precise data about the browsers you use. Steganos lets you replace your actual browser details with a generic fake set, to anonymize your browser type. Finally, you can choose to block advertisements altogether. The Block ads, Prevent tracking, and Anonymize browse type settings are simple on/off switches.
In testing, these three privacy elements initially didn’t work. I confirmed this using various online tests. I reinstalled the product, to no avail. I installed it on a physical system, thinking that it might be incompatible with running in a virtual machine. Here, too, the privacy elements just didn’t work. Tech support determined this was due to the absence of a proxy process that provides all three types of filtering.
Going back and forth with tech support, I determined that the installer failed to create a necessary configuration file. Even after I manually copied the config file that tech support supplied, it did not launch the proxy process. After more back and forth, I got the proxy running on both systems. It seemed to be running smoothly on the physical system, but its output on the virtual system contained many error messages. That being the case, I focused on the physical system.
There’s no way to tell if the Prevent tracking feature is working, but Anonymize browser type should change the user agent string that your browser sends to every website. It did not do so. And although the filter’s output log contained tons of ad blocking reports, the ads visibly weren’t blocked.
The worst thing about this component is that even when its proxy failed to load, it didn’t display any kind of error message. The privacy features work silently, so you’d have no idea that they weren’t functioning, unless you noticed its failure to block ads.
There is one icon I haven’t covered, E-Mail Encryption. I’ve skipped this one for several reasons. First, it is not a Steganos product; it’s from another company, MyNigma. Second, on a PC it only functions as an Outlook plug-in, and my test systems don’t have Outlook. Third, it only works to encrypt email between other users of MyNigma, so it’s not useful for general-purpose encrypted communication.
Another Take on Privacy
Abine Blur is another suite of tools aimed at protecting your privacy. Its active Do Not Track component goes way beyond just sending the DNT header, which websites can ignore. Furthermore, unlike Steganos, it makes its activity visible. It includes a simple password manager, but goes beyond Steganos by offering a safety report that flags weak and duplicate passwords.
Blur protects your privacy by masking email accounts, credit cards, and (on a smartphone) phone numbers. Suppose you make a purchase from a merchant using a masked email account, and a masked credit card. Mail from the merchant reaches your inbox, but you can delete the masked account if it starts getting spam. And a merchant who doesn’t have your real credit card number can’t sell the card data or overcharge you. Read my review for a full explanation.
Blur doesn’t block ads, and it doesn’t include file encryption, but all of its components are directly aimed at protecting your privacy. Even if you do install the Steganos suite, consider trying Blur’s free edition for additional protection. Note that if you do opt for a $39-per-year premium subscription, you can use Blur on all your devices.
Do You Already Have It?
You may also find that you’ve already got significant privacy protection courtesy of your security suite. For example, Kaspersky and AVG Internet Security include an active Do Not Track system, like what Blur offers, and Kaspersky can block banner ads. Webcam protection in Kaspersky and ESET goes farther than what you get with Steganos.
As for encrypted storage, the core of Steganos Privacy Suite, you can find a similar feature in many suites, among them McAfee LiveSafe, Bitdefender, Kaspersky, and Trend Micro. Admittedly, none of the suites build out this feature into the comprehensive encryption system that is Steganos Safe.
As for password management, it’s becoming a common bonus feature in larger suites. Webroot includes a version based on award-winning LastPass, and McAfee comes with all the multi-factor authentication glory of True Key. Symantec Norton Security Premium, Trend Micro, ESET, Kaspersky, and Bitdefender are among the other suites with a password manager built right in.
Before you purchase a set of privacy tools, check to see what you already have right in your existing security suite.
A Mixed Bag
Steganos Safe is easier to use than other container-based encryption programs, and has some nifty features to both encrypt and hide your files. However, Steganos Password Manager lacks advanced features, and some of its features didn’t work in testing. The Crypt & Hide component is a kick, as it truly hides your secrets, leaving no trace. But the browser-related privacy filters just didn’t work in testing. Steganos Privacy Suite is a mixed bag, for sure.
There aren’t many utilities specifically devoted to privacy. Abine Blur Premium remains our Editors’ Choice in this interesting field. I look forward to seeing more competition in the specific area of privacy protection.