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SurfEasy: Browsing privacy for Grandma

Clever private browsing utility bundles portable browser, proxy server connection on a USB key.

The SurfEasy USB key pops out of a business-card-sized holder Rafe Needleman/CNET

VANCOUVER--The Grow start-up conference here is supposed to be off the record. I'm here as a mentor, not to cover it. But you know how it is with entrepreneurs--you can't stop them from pitching.

One such entrepreneur here (not in one of my mentoring sessions) is Chris Houston, who showed me a hardware mockup of his safe Web surfing package SurfEasy. It's a USB key that stores in a business-card-size container and holds an auto-launching version of a portable browser--it runs straight from the USB stick--that connects via an encrypted link to a proxy server farm that SurfEasy maintains.

I didn't get to try the app so I can't vouch for its ease of use or speed, but the pitch is good: For people who need to browse safely from other peoples' computers, it's the simplest way possible to open a secure and private Web experience that leaves no traces behind on the host computer. Houston says it's a good app for students (he says half of teenagers report that their Facebook accounts have been hacked, usually because they forgot to log off after checking their status on someone else's computer), for office workers who are not allowed to browse to personal sites on their work computers, and for travelers who use rented or borrowed computers. He pitches SurfEasy for everyone who's either paranoid or concerned about security or for whom security on the computer they use is restrictive. Yes, SurfEasy will bypass Facebook blocks. It can also report a different location from where you actually are, if you want to watch the U.S. Netflix library in Canada, for example.

While Houston plans to sell SurfEasy directly to consumers, it could also be configured to work well for businesses, as a VPN-on-a-stick for business travelers.

I'll bet you're thinking, this isn't a product for me or anyone I know. First of all, if I want a secure browsing experience, I'll get my own portable Firefox and connect over Tor or Cocoon to hide my tracks. Or maybe you're looking at the rich Menlo Park kids you know, who primarily browse from their own smartphones. Fair enough on both points. But think of the rest of the world. We've been teaching people to be paranoid about security; a lot of them are still using old Windows desktops; and this little service could sell well if marketed correctly. See also Clickfree, the backup service that I'm told is doing well by selling on QVC. There are people who value simplicity and who are not using the latest gear.

This would also be a good product for Internet cafes to sell.

What SurfEasy does three years from now when everyone is primarily on a smartphone, I don't know, though. Houston did say he was considering a software-only version (his Mozilla-based browser plus the hard-coded connection to the SurfEasy proxy services).

SurfEasy is being pre-sold for $49.99 on KickStarter (more for marketing than to raise funds, I think). It works on Windows and OS X. Final sale price and potential subscription fees (if any) have not yet been determined.