Three approaches to free encrypted online storage

SpiderOak, CryptoHeaven, and SwissDisk let you protect the files you store online but in very different ways.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
4 min read

One of the knocks against Google's online applications is that your personal data is stored unencrypted on the company's servers. For the many users of Google apps who are unconcerned about somebody snooping around their files, this won't matter. But those servers are no place to store sensitive personal or business information.

You can store your financial and other confidential information online for free by using a service such as Mozy or IDrive that encrypts the data on their servers, usually in a way that prevents the service's own employees from decrypting it. I looked at three services that include encrypted online storage along with other security services.

SpiderOak gives you up to 2GB of secure online storage for free but requires that you download a big client program, though you can access your data via a browser. The free storage offered by CryptoHeaven and SwissDisk top out at 50MB, but both of these services have more to offer, and SwissDisk doesn't even require a client download.

Free encrypted storage with room to spare
Secure online storage is only one of the features of the SpiderOak service, but the site's 2GB of encrypted-file capacity is difficult to ignore. You can also sync and share folders between multiple Windows, Mac, and Linux PCs. The service is designed primarily for backup but also lets you access your online files from any Internet-connected system.

SpiderOak claims to provide fault-tolerant servers to guard against data loss and also keeps old versions of your files to assist in recovery. The service uses a combination of 2048-byte RSA and 256-bit AES encryption. It also encrypts the keys you use to access the data so the company itself can't access your data.

SpiderOak client program
The SpiderOak client program lets you view and access your online files. SpiderOak

The SpiderOak client program crashed when I attempted to transfer a single 1MB JPEG file. The software is a real throwback, and the reason I prefer an online service. In testing, I was prompted to download a 12MB update of the SpiderOak app. When I restarted, the program automatically updated the 257MB of data I had backed up previously.

It took more than an hour to transfer 257MB of data to the SpiderOak server. Subsequent syncs and single-file transfers went much quicker, but using the program feels like you're plodding through the settings and folder tree. If 2GB of storage space isn't enough, you can buy 100GB increments for $10 a month or $100 a year.

Secure more than files
Online file encryption is only one component of the security services CryptoHeaven offers a workgroup. You can also send and receive e-mail and IM securely by inviting people to communicate with you; for an added fee, the company will also host your domain to give your encrypted communications a personal touch.

The free service lets you store up to only 40MB, but that's expandable up to 50GB for prices starting at $7.99 a month or $66 a year for 200MB. Personal accounts come with up to five e-mail addresses, and business accounts offer up to 12 addresses.

CryptoHeaven Password Recovery dialog box
Passwords are optional for the CryptoHeaven secure online file storage, e-mail, and IM service. CryptoHeaven

After you download the 8.4MB CryptoHeaven client program, the installation routine asks whether you want to password-protect the account and use a password hint. Business plans let you create and manage accounts, including assigning passphrases and setting permissions.

The company promises that no one can access your data but you via its "AES encryption with 256-bit symmetric key as well as public-key cryptography with 2048-4096-bit keys." Sounds secure enough for my needs.

The quick-and-easy approach to secure online storage
There's something to be said for the multifunction approaches taken by such security services as SpiderOak and CryptoHeaven. But there's a time and place for specialists as well. The SwissDisk service offers 50MB of secure online storage as a "gift" but charges from $3 a month for a Mobility service to $12 a month for a personal account that includes access to your data from Windows Explorer or Mac Finder.

After you sign up for your free account, you simply log in the SwissDisk site, browse to the files or folders you want to upload, and click Upload. My test 1MB JPEG file uploaded in about five seconds. You can download, delete, rename, or create a temporary URL for your online files. Simple and straightforward.

SwissDisk secure online file storage service
Storing files securely online couldn't be simpler than with the free SwissDisk service. SwissDisk

The only downside of the SwissDisk service is that you have to provide a telephone number and mailing address in addition to an e-mail address to sign up for a free account. Considering that the data and transmission lines are protected by 256-bit AES encryption and the SwissDisk servers "certified Hacker Safe," I'd say my files are safer online than they are on my own PC.