In Batman Begins, there’s a scene where the Dark Knight’s nemesis Scarecrow pours psychoactive drugs into the water supply in order to poison the people of Gotham City. Never in my life have I imagined that I’d ever use a Christian Bale movie as a metaphor for the Internet, but I can’t deny the reality that I’ve recently witnessed firsthand. Never mind super-villains — the web is crawling with real criminals continually pouring nastiness into our system of tubes, and as a result, we're gulping down data from some seriously tainted pipes.
Recent research from Distil Networks has shown that 60% of the Internet’s traffic consists of bots, not people. Nearly a quarter of those bots are up to some pretty nasty stuff, like stealing passwords and credit card numbers. It’s an epidemic that’s only getting worse the more we rely on cloud computing. According to the report, the biggest culprits behind this — besides the hackers who unleash these bots on the web — are services like Amazon’s cloud services (where many bad bots make their home) and data networks like T-Mobile (which doesn’t do a great job of monitoring its traffic).
But perhaps the biggest the problem with these bad bots is that most web users never see them. They open their tap, fill their drinking glasses with dirty data, swallow it down, feel refreshed and think all is well. But using Bitdefender BOX, I was able to put my stream of data under a digital microscope. Within minutes, I couldn’t believe the viruses, malware, and other nastiness that had been flowing my way all along undetected.
Smaller than a hockey puck, Bitdefender BOX is an ethernet-connected security device that plugs in between your high-speed modem and your wireless router (it can also be used as a router itself) that will alert you to every attempted intrusion or bad piece of code that comes in from the Internet. Basically, it’s an intrusion detection system.
“Every major company, every major corporation, has a big giant box like this sitting in their network,” says Rami Essaid, CEO of Distil Networks. “It's analyzing every packet going in, every packet going out."
The $199 hub is designed to protect all the devices on a home’s network, whether or not they're loaded with virus-scanning software. It comes with one free year of service, which runs $99 per year afterwards. For that price, BOX customers get continual background upgrades that protect them from the latest and scariest bugs going. The best part is that users don’t have to update virus profiles or run memory-hogging background software on their PCs. It’s a set-it-and-forget-it solution that aims to block everything from fraud to phishing.
I installed BOX on my home network on a Friday evening. Frankly, I put it off as long as possible because my home has a moderately complex Wi-Fi setup, and I didn’t want to spend a work day unraveling a knot of networking problems. I use two Apple Airport Extremes to stretch both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz networks across my property. I also have the wireless routers run guest networks, which I have configured only my smart home devices to connect to. The only thing I had to do to make BOX work properly for my setup was toggle my primary Airport Extreme into Bridge Mode. Upon doing that, BOX was able to do its thing, and all my devices, from iPhones to lightbulbs, to computers, functioned perfectly, as if BOX wasn’t even there. (Well, sort of. It turned out that BOX didn’t support my guest networks, so all my smart home gear had to be reconnected to my main network. But I suspect this is a problem few other users would encounter, so I wouldn’t slight Bitdefender for it.)
It took Bitdefender nearly 12 hours to recognize my nearly 30 connected devices, but while it was adding and analyzing them, everything worked fine. In fact, as my wife sat poking on her iPad next to me, my iPhone started to light up with notifications like “Dangerous website blocked,” and “A malware attempt was detected.”
These alerts immediately prompted her to wonder if I could monitor what she was browsing online. Generally, I could not, but if an alert popped on the accompanying BOX iOS app, I could see where the dangerous file originated from. But keep in mind, I told her, on the web, vile files flow in from every direction, not just the pages you surf to.
If I have a complaint about Bitdefender BOX, its iPhone app might be it. Though it’s good and generally responsive, it still needs some work. For instance, you have to rekey your password every day. It’s 2015, people — time to use Touch ID, throw in some 1Password/LastKey integration, and make your app as secure as it should be. Also, once inside the app, new alerts don’t get pushed over into the history after they're viewed, so unless you’re keeping track, you have no idea how many bugs have floated your way since the last time you’ve opened the app.
But if there was one thing that surprised me about BitDefender BOX, it's the device’s “Private Line” feature. Essentially a Virtual Private Network (VPN) for dummies, Private Line lets users set up a tunnel between your mobile devices and BOX with the flip of a switch. In other words, when I’m out on the town using my AT&T mobile data, my web surfing will go from my handset to my home network, through the Bitdefender BOX to ensure I’m protected, and into the web. While using my iPhone 6 in this mode, I didn’t notice any lag, though there was one huge hiccup: I couldn't send SMS messages (I could send iMessages). A representative from Bitdefender said she thought the problem might stem from AT&T not allowing messaging connections from servers other than its own. Whatever the root cause, I hope it gets resolved, because it was a Private Line deal-killer for me.
After the first week of running BOX, as its new gadget shine wore off and malware notifications piled up, complacency nearly became another deal-killer. BOX was great, but I wondered if it was doing anything more than my browser already could — after all, properly configured, they can block threats very well. Despite having more than a dozen smart home products on my network, not one of them got a nibble from a hacker.
"There are a lot of people that use bots to see what's out there,” says Essaid, specifically calling out Dropcams and baby monitors — both of which I run 24-7. “What you're going to start seeing is a lot of people probing you because you are connected to the web."
And that’s what Bitdefender is banking on. The big idea behind BOX is that it can stand guard between the bad guys and your smart home gear, most of which is defenseless. In fact, according to a study by ThroughTek, cybersecurity is the number one concern for buyers of smart home products, with 25% of people concerned about their personal data getting out. Until I had this device, I had no idea if someone was trying to digitally break into my home. I just hoped that they weren’t. But the more attacks I see bouncing off my phones, tablets, and computers, the more I’m convinced Bitdefender has the chops to keep all my Internet-connected gear safe. So in that way, Bitdefender may just be the hero the Internet of Things deserves, just not the one it needs right now.