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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10

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 web, following 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 it blocks anyone from tracking you, because they don't really know where you physically are at any moment.

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 what Winston provides as a ring, he told GearBrain, one that keeps people from peeking in your windows, or at least makes that much more difficult. He also notes that those who kick off Incognito Mode, can still be fingerprinted, which — yes — Winston helps to stop as well.

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, as it actively also blocks what the system deems are bad actors, sites that shouldn't be connecting to you. Ever. However, because Winston makes it appear that you're pinging from multiple different locations, you often get automatically signed out of web sites. A lot. That happened to me almost hourly, particularly on social media networks. 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 throughout the day, you're going to need to re-connect.

A lot of what Winston helps to block isn't actually clear to regular users. You get a live view through Winston, but the data you see doesn't say, for example, which site is being blocked. Yes, in some cases, URLs are clear, but not all. 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 the affected machine.

Installing Winston

Installing Winston is hardly difficult, but it's also 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 completely— or for individual sites. And you can make these choices with a simple click.

As a journalist, I am 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 that step, 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 locations 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 — that 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 your 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 that means Winston is not ideal for those hopscotching between different physical locations. 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.

I also ran into sites — news sites — that wouldn't grant me access while using Winston. When I went to their landing page, they actually prevented me from accessing their content unless I disabled my ad blocker. I whitelisted them instead through Winston, which meant the company could push ads to me, but at least then I could read what I needed.

Signs of Winston at work

The first sign of Winston at work — and the easiest sign to spot — was through Gmail. If you use Google's email service, you'll see ads at the top of the promotions page. Those were gone once I started using Winston. And when you start heading to web sites you typically visit, ads will disappear. Sponsored tabs are still there, but if you try to click on these links — the ones that cookie you into shopping sites — that connection is blocked by Winston.

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

Price

Winston costs $249.99, which includes a one-year subscription. 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. But 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, along with 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 one as well. 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. The trade off is 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 who don't care if what they watch, read and see is being collected, and those who prefer to keep things to themselves. That divide is clearly growing wider. For those who fall in the latter category, Winston is 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 without needing a Winston to help us.

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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