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Jun 12, 2009

Review: Secure Your Online Transactions(Safecentral 2.0)

Last summer Authentium released SafeCentral, a hardened browser specifically designed for secure online transactions. While its protection proved durable, the product itself had some rough edges. SafeCentral 2.0 ($39.95 per year direct) retains all the protection of the original product but in a much slicker package.

The basic operation of the product hasn't changed. Rather than try to ensure that the computer is free of malware, SafeCentral creates an isolated malware-free environment for secure browsing. No process running in the regular Windows environment can reach inside SafeCentral's environment. Malware can't meddle, and keyloggers can't log keystrokes or capture images. It even uses its own Domain Name System (DNS) lookup rather than relying on the easily fooled Windows DNS. For a full description of the program's operation, refer to the SafeCentral 1.0 review. This review will concentrate on the functional and usability improvements.

New Secure Desktop

In version 1.0 SafeBrowser opened on the regular Windows desktop but dimmed all other running applications, indicating that they can't act while the SafeBrowser is open. Version 2.0 replaces the entire desktop. When you click the SafeCentral taskbar button, a tough-looking metallic desktop slides into place with an audible clang (you can turn off the sliding animation and the clang).

Going forward Authentium plans to offer additional applications within the safe desktop, but for now SafeBrowser is alone. Well, almost. It shares the desktop with a sparse Start menu whose single menu item launches SafeBrowser.

I commented in my earlier review that the desktop clock stopped ticking with SafeBrowser active. The new safe desktop has a taskbar clock. Its taskbar also includes two indicators to show that the anti-malware and secure DNS features are working. There's no option to turn these features off, so if they're not green it means the program has been compromised somehow.

The previous edition of SafeBrowser used a SafeCentral-specific site-selection page as its home page. To select a supported site, you would either flip through a set of thumbnails with company logos or dig into a category tree. Version 2.0 completely discards this method of choosing a Web site. You simply browse wherever you please within the safe desktop. When you're using Internet Explorer or Firefox on the regular Windows desktop, SafeCentral watches for known sensitive sites. If it spots one, it pops up and offers to open that site in SafeBrowser instead—simple! And there's an option to always use SafeBrowser for that site automatically. SafeBrowser's home page is still fixed, but now it's locked to an MSN Live Search page.

Version 2.0 also offers up a series of short videos explaining how the product works and how to use it. That makes sense. The purpose of a secure browser may not be clear to everyone, so the videos spell out just what the program does and how it helps.

SafeBrowser Changes

SafeBrowser is still based on Firefox, but it now allows some familiar Firefox features that were suppressed in version 1.0. You still can't install a third-party password manager like Lastpass or RoboForm, but Firefox's built-in password manager is enabled. Additionally, the phishing protection built into Firefox is active in SafeCentral 2.0.

Probably the biggest difference is that you can now open multiple browser windows or tabs within the safe desktop. Where the previous version completely suppressed the menu, version 2.0 includes many standard Firefox menu items. You can save bookmarks within SafeBrowser (naturally they're separate from any bookmarks in your regular browser). SafeCentral still doesn't record history.

Getting into SafeCentral is also much, much faster than with the previous edition. Launching the older SafeBrowser could take as much as 20 or 30 seconds. Version 2.0 slides into place immediately. The app's developers also seem to have cured the general browsing slowdown that was evident in the earlier version.

There's some similarity between SafeBrowser and the Secure View browser found in ID Vault 4.0. The latter is a stripped-down version of Internet Explorer, while SafeBrowser is based on Firefox. Secure View limits IE's threat exposure by banning all add-ins and limiting what the user can do. However, it isn't isolated from other processes the way SafeBrowser is, and it doesn't protect against malware or keyloggers.

Keyloggers Still Stymied

I tested SafeCentral 2.0 using several of the commercial keyloggers from my anti-malware testing sample collection. I installed them and verified that all of them were able to capture both keystrokes and screen images. Then I switched to the SafeBrowser and typed some text into the Google search box. I also typed in the address bar. I left the safe desktop running for several minutes to give the keyloggers a chance to snap some screenshots. Then I switched back to the regular desktop and checked the keyloggers.

None of them captured a single keystroke typed during the SafeBrowser session. One of them saved blank white screens for its periodic screenshots while the other two didn't capture anything at all. Nor could they capture text that was copied to the clipboard during the secure session. Success!

Now for a little harsh reality. Installing SafeCentral won't let you get rid of your existing security products. You still need firewall, anti-malware, and the like. Also, SafeCentral's protection isn't truly needed unless those existing products fall down on the job. This is an extra $40 per year to further secure your online transactions. Depending on your budget that may be fine, or not.

The secure browsing offered by SafeCentral 2.0 isn't significantly different from that of the first version, but it's packaged and presented in a way that's much easier to use. Unnecessary restrictions have been lifted from the SafeBrowser, the new safe desktop opens quickly, and I didn't observe a slowdown in browsing. If you're concerned enough about the security of your online transactions to pay the price, you can rely on SafeCentral to protect them.

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