Feature: Living on the COAST

Posted: April 10, 2013

Many people would have good reason to feel uncomfortable if others could see their internet history but COAST is a clever new device which claims to offer computer users complete privacy, with no trace of any activity being left on their PC. Dale Bradford found out more…

The Mail On Sunday reported in February that between May 2011 and July 2012 computers used by Members of Parliament and their staff accessed hardcore pornography sites more than 2,500 times. Foot fetish sites – “which include pornographic images of lurid sex acts involving feet”, the Mail helpfully explained – racked up a whopping 470 views while gay cruising sites were visited a further 3,459 times. Even more popular was a contacts site for married people seeking a bit on the side, which notched up over 50,000 visits. Stretching credibility way beyond its normal boundaries, a Parliament spokesperson said that it was possible the sites had been visited accidentally.

While this is all good knockabout fun, in the great British tradition of ridiculing our elected representatives and exposing their hypocrisy, the media regularly feature harrowing tales of jobs being lost or relationships being ruined due to a partner coming across something inappropriate on a computer. Indeed, in January this year the Daily Telegraph reported that research by internet security firm BullGuard revealed that one in four men would be embarrassed if their wife or boss checked their internet history. Of course this ‘embarrassment’ needn’t necessarily be the result of behaving like a 1970s’ pop star, it could be from checking out profiles on a dating site, sending or receiving flirty emails or even just making secret purchases from online retailers.

Which is where COAST, from Broadband Computer Company, comes in. COAST – Computer On A Stick – is an ingenious little device which fits into the USB port of a PC. Inserting it before the computer is powered up gives the user the option of either booting up normally or choosing to run Alex, the operating system supplied on the stick. Alex is a proprietary Ubuntu Linux-based system which is simple to use, maintenance free and protected against viruses and malware because it doesn’t download executable programs. If that means nothing to you don’t worry, you don’t have to understand what it is to appreciate what it does – just about everything the host computer is capable of but, once COAST is removed, there is no trace left behind of anything the user did during his COAST session. That could include: visiting Internet sites; creating, editing or printing documents; viewing still images or streaming videos; or sending and receiving emails. All ‘saved’ data is held on the COAST device and, for security, is backed up at Broadband Computer’s own ‘Vault’ servers, where it is encrypted and inaccessible to anyone but the registered user.

This in itself will be a compelling reason to purchase but COAST also has an added trick up its sleeve. Because it bypasses the host computer’s hard drive and operating system, it also avoids all the guff that builds up on PCs over a period of years and slows them down. I tried a pre-production sample of COAST on an elderly Toshiba laptop that was underpowered even when it was new back in 2006. It had been bought only for emergency cover but, even so, the crap it picked up during its productive periods and the deluge of Microsoft updates it had been bombarded with had rendered it useless within five years. Even the most basic task required several seconds to process and more challenging ones, such as applying a filter in Photoshop, would just be buying a one-way ticket to Frustration City.

Booting the old Tosh up from COAST was like watching Ron Howard’s movie Cocoon, in which a group of OAPs were restored to their youthful vigour. Suddenly the Tosh was opening and closing text documents, streaming Top Gear from the BBC iPlayer and searching Google for pictures of Kate Bush with all the enthusiasm of an eager to please Labrador. COAST really did bring the laptop back to life.

The pre-production sample I played with had the minimum standard version of Alex and the retail release will have a number of additional functions. Even so, it offered all the basic functionality of a computer. COAST will be offered in 4GB, 16GB and 32GB versions, with the larger sizes obviously offering users far more storage space.

Purchasing a COAST is a little like buying a pay-as-you-go mobile phone in that each COAST comes with a code in the package from which the user creates their own account. Andy Hudson, COO of Broadband Computer Company, explained: “Users are not obliged to either use their own name or their own postcode. For instance, if the name were put in as Valley Boy then the account would be created as Valley Boy, the email would be valley.boy@alexlive.com and the Skype account would be whatever Skype gave it automatically,  likely valley.boy1, valley.boy2 etc. If you wanted to initiate the automatic personalisation of Radio/TV/Newsfeeds then a local/regional postcode is the trigger for that, otherwise defaults are created.”

The purchase price of COAST includes all services for one account for one year. After which a subscription renewal fee will be required to maintain feature updates and ‘Vault’ access. The Vault is where the user’s data is backed up but the user need have no fears that anyone at Broadband Computer would be looking at this, as Andy explained: “A unique user reference ID number is used to associate a server Vault folder to a specific user. Any user data transmitted and uploaded to the server is encrypted prior to transmission and only decrypted after it has subsequently been downloaded again by the user. We have no knowledge of the content of the data, which is stored in an encrypted file on our server at a commercial server farm. Use of the Vault by the user is optional, as all files are stored locally on the stick by default. No personal files are saved to the Vault unless selected by the user.”

COAST uses SSL – Secure Sockets Layer – encryption for log in details and when transmitting user profile data such as contacts, bookmarks and account details to and from the Vault and it uses TLS – Transport Layer Security – encryption when transmitting Alex emails to and from the Alex email server. These cryptographic protocols are designed to prevent eavesdropping and tampering.

COAST would be an excellent purchase for anyone who has to share a computer at home, whether that person wants to keep their activities private from their partner or, perhaps more importantly, from their children. COAST looks just any other USB memory stick and even if it should fall into the wrong hands it will not give up its secrets without the finder knowing the individual name of the account for that particular COAST and the password. Examining the COAST drive in a PC would result in its contents appearing complete gibberish, with no file types or saved content being readable.

COAST could also play a very useful role in the workplace too, as our MPs mentioned at the start of this feature would no doubt confirm. Company representatives supplied with laptops are frequently told that their machine cannot be used for non-work purposes – COAST would allow them to do so, without leaving behind any evidence of what they had been using the laptop for; which would be particularly useful on a cold evening in a lonely Travelodge off the M1, I suspect.

However, networked computers in an office environment will almost certainly be using a form of network identification called DHCP – Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol – which assigns an IP address to every computer on the network. This can change from day to day but each individual computer also has a MAC address, which is hard-wired into the machine and will never change. A corporate IT department might only allow machines to operate outside their firewall by MAC address rather than IP address, in which case even very basic network monitoring programs will be able to see which computers are transmitting data even if they cannot necessarily identify what that data is.

The retail release of COAST is scheduled for May 2013 and it will have a suggested retail price of £79.99. Broadband Computer Company believes the adult sector will be an excellent sales channel for COAST and, at the time of writing, it was in discussions with adult wholesalers. For more information contact Broadband Computer Company on 0191 261 4271 or visit www.broadbandcomputer.com