GearBrain

Review: How Winston made me invisible to cookies, advertising and trackers

Winston showed me the cesspool of the internet, but the filter also has a learning curve, requiring some investment of time to set-up and run

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Overall Rating:
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It's hard to remember an internet that took minutes to connect to, email that included nothing but typed words and web sites that resembled billboards. Today, moving images, sound, live video, practically any media and information you want, fill the internet — and follow you around as you travel in this digital world. But Winston believes you should have some refuge from these prying eyes, and that's the entire point of its device.

Winston, a hardware filter, plugs into your router and modem, and essentially makes you disappear to marketers, or anyone frankly, who wants to follow you across the internet. We spend a month using Winston, which we picked up more than a year ago after meeting the founder and CEO Richard Stokes at CES 2019. It's an ingenious device, designed for the right person. Is that you? Here's our take.

What is Winston Privacy

You likely get on the internet through a modem and router in your home. (We're not going to address those who may be stealing Wi-Fi from a neighbor, or piggybacking off their mobile network.) Winston sits in the middle of this — connecting to the internet, and then pinging your connection through a peer network. Basically this means anyone tracking you doesn't really know where you physically are.

But more keenly, Winston blocks fingerprints and cookies — those traces you leave as you go from web site to web site, along with the trackers that companies leave to follow you on your path. Stokes calls it a ring, he told GearBrain, one that keeps people from peeking in your windows, or at least makes it much more difficult. And he notes that fingerprinting is even happening when you're surfing through Incognito mode, identifying users who think they're staying anonymous.

Winston Dashboard The Winston Dashboard can show you how many trackers are being blocked, live.GearBrain

Is Winston like a VPN?

A bit. But Winston is more than that, because it actively also blocks what it deems are bad actors, sites that shouldn't be connecting to you. Ever. But because you look like you're pinging across the globe, you're also getting signed out of sites. A lot. That happened to me almost hourly, particularly on social media sites. While, I am aware of what that tells you about my social media use, it also means if you're someone who parks on Twitter or Facebook, you're going to need to re-connect.

A lot of what you're blocking isn't actually clear to regular users. You get a live view, but coded lines that don't say, for example, which site is being blocked. In some cases, URLs are clear, not always in others. But Stokes said he was able to tell, through the live view, that some traffic at his home was actually going to Russia. Which device? He didn't know. But by turning off one device and then another, he located what was the infected machine.

Installing Winston

Installing Winston is hardly difficult, but it's not intuitive. You're connecting Winston physically to both your modem and router, and then you need to, in some cases, add a custom setting to your DNS. This depends on the kind of router you have, and Winston does a solid job of trouble-shooting issues you'll hit while using the filter.

The final step is adding the blocker extension to your web browser. Winston works on Chrome and Firefox, but not, currently, Safari. Here is where the fun happens, because the extension keeps a running tab of all the items that it's blocking. Fact: you'll hit in the thousands within an hour, particularly if you're a heavy user like me. The extension also has a quick link to your Dashboard, where you can see all the tracking domains being blocked.

Al.com web site One news site would not allow access with Winston installed, until I whitelisted the URL and allowed ads to showGearBrain

What's nice about Winston is the control you get, and in the extension you can actively choose to have fingerprinting, cookies and your location blocked — or per each site, you can turn these off by just toggling the button.

As a journalist, I an online. A lot. I need to be researching stories, looking up facts and statistics, emailing sources. I found Winston to be excellent at its job — and yet, I needed to constantly go around it for my work. One initial problem came up within an hour, an inability to connect to some password-protected sites I needed for my job. The answer, to add these to my whitelisted chart of sites, was simple. But I wasn't sure how to do that. A question lobbed at Winston's customer service walked me through, and they answered within a day.

Other examples? I was constantly signed out of Gmail, and Winston initially blocked all of my newsletters. It was not a big deal, I just gave Winston permission to read them. Winston will warn you that giving a site access is a privacy problem. But you're going to have to take on some of these to adequately use the internet for certain kinds of work and research. What this action really did tell me, however, is how much I'm being tracked while online. As in, all the time. Did I suspect that? Yes. Was it daunting to see it in real-time. Yes.

Modules that help

Winston has custom modules, think of them as special filters, designed for people on specific networks or for specific sites: YouTube TV, Xfinity, Slack and dozens more. These adjust Winston to the different programs or sites that you access constantly.

There's one, for example, designed for the Restoration Hardware shopping site that lets you use the shopping cart without having to whitelist — and allow cookies — the entire site. Another for HBO GO fixes streaming connections, and one for Amazon Echo is said to also help with connections to these devices. You'll want to cherry pick through these if you're using any of those services, and add them to the network.

Tracker Blocked on Winston When Winston detects trackers on a site, it will block your accessGearBrain

Hiccups

Winston worked perfectly, as long as I was near the device at home. Take my computer or phone out of my home, and the filter couldn't do its job. Stokes said Winston is working on a mobile version. But what that means is that it's ideal for those who want coverage at home, or at work, not both. Unless you're a working out of a home office, you'll need to physically cart the Winston privacy device with you between locations, for now.

There were also sites — news sites — that wouldn't grant me access. When I went to the their landing page, they actually prevented me from accessing their content unless I disabled my ad blocker. I whitelisted them instead, which meant the company could push ads to me.

Signs of Winston at work

The first — and easiest sign to spot? If you use Gmail, you'll see the ads at the top of the promotions page are gone. Gone. Starting heading to web sites you typically visit, and ads will disappear. Sponsored tabs are still there, however. However, if you try to click on these links — the ones that cookie you into shopping sites, that connection is blocked by Winston, unless you give it permission. Winston typically allows you to access the site for 10 minutes segments, when it will then break the link.

Winston Dashboard The dashboard collects IDs of what's happening on your networkGearBrain

Price

Winston costs $249.99, which includes a one-year subscription for free. You'll pay $8.25 a month after that.

Buy Winston Here

Worth buying?

The majority of consumers are getting much more savvy about their privacy online, and even believe they're being tracked, questioning sites that can see their movement on the internet. Ads in the corners of web pages are a familiar scene — newspapers have had these for centuries. A social media site, like Facebook, knowing you've opened your video doorbell app — even if you're not a Facebook user — is a whole other issue.

Winston handles most of these concerns, blocking your location, cookies and fingerprints that can be captured by trackers, marketers and other groups. Think of it like an invisibility cloak you can use, or take off, as you want. But Winston is definitely not something you can install and forget.

For people who are online most of the day for work, who have up until now traveled across the internet without thinking of who is seeing their movements, Winston is both a good move and a potentially cumbersome move. You need to be willing to adjust the way you go online to use Winston successfully, whitelisting some sites you need often, pausing to allow others to open for a few minutes, all while knowing your privacy is being protected to a far greater degree than you could ever do on your own.

Whether you're cool with that commitment or not is going to depend on the camp someone falls into, those that say they have nothing to hide, and don't care who knows what they watch, read and see, and those who prefer to keep somethings to themselves. That divide is clearly growing wider. For those who fall in the latter category, Winston is a likely going to be a helpful tool, a device that will grant them some control over their visibility online — a right, frankly, we should all have.

Pros

  • Blocks cookies and tracking while you're online
  • Customer service is excellent
  • You can customize how you want to be seen, or cloaked, on every site you visit

Cons

  • Not intuitive, has a learning curve
  • Dependent on the device, so doesn't work if you're not near the hardware filter
  • Requires a $8.25 monthly fee after the first year
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