Get in the Zone: A Review of MXI's Stealth Zone Secure Portal Desktop
Be sneaky -- and secure -- with the MXI portable Windows OS.
Aren't those James Bond movies cool? And don't you especially like it when 007 heads to the gadget armory to load up on the latest gear for his next assignment?
The Stealth Zone Secure Portable Desktop from MXI Security would fit into a spy's bag of tricks. The Stealth Zone is a flash drive that has a working copy of Windows Embedded Standard Edition on it. It can even be used in a generic mode that installs nothing on a host computer and leaves no traces behind. Images of a completely clean office in which computers do little but support the actual OSes carried by employees on their Stealth Zones come to mind. If anyone broke in to steal data, they'd find all the computers were blank slates. Q would be so jealous.
Though it sounds far-fetched, it would easily be possible with Stealth Zones. This is no dummy drive. Besides a full OS and all your files, the entire Zone is protected by a Stealth Processor. The processor locks down all the stored files using FIPS 140-2 Level 3 encryption. So all your data is protected in case an unauthorized person gets his or her hands on it. And while users are accessing a host computer, files on the Zone are isolated and protected against malware and data leakage.
Setting up the Zone
Although there are many practical uses for a Stealth Zone, it might not be the best device for all situations. You can't just pop it into a public terminal and start using your own secure desktop. That would be optimal, but probably impossible given today's technology. A lot of setup needs to happen on a host computer before the Stealth Zone works, and you might not be able to do everything on a computer you don't fully control.
First, you need to have access to the USB ports on a system. If they're blocked or disabled, your Stealth Zone won't work. Second, you need to reboot the system. Although a reboot can be accomplished one way or another, by pulling a plug if nothing else, you also have to get into the BIOS of a host computer. You need to set up the BIOS so that a host computer tries to boot from a USB port first before looking at its own hard drive. Most systems aren't configured that way by default. If all that works, you can reboot the system with the Stealth Zone inserted in the USB port. The host computer will ignore its OS and load from the Stealth Zone instead.
Using the system like this isn't perfect because a lot of the drivers on the Stealth Zone probably won't match the hardware of the system you're using. You might be shutting off a host computer's brain, but you still need to get around using its body. In our tests with several systems, we found that graphics are almost always minimal and sound worked only about half the time.
You can adapt the Stealth Zone to a machine if you plan to use a specific host all the time, which eliminates the driver-compatibility problems.
In general, performance when using a Stealth Zone OS is a little slower overall when compared to using a computer's native hard drive. The speed limitations of the USB 2.0 standard compared to an internal hard drive make that a necessity. But, surprisingly, the performance is acceptable for most applications, and the slowdown is only noticeable when writing or reading larger files or a lot of files from the Stealth Zone.
A perfect use for the Stealth Zone would be an office that requires users to work on a secure desktop but has remote employees or contractors who need to use their own equipment. Administrators could provide a Stealth Zone to contractors, who could then comply with company security policies using their own laptops. And once that hardware is adapted to the flash drive, it's practically plug and play -- and reboot -- at that point. Removing the Stealth Zone and rebooting gives access to the default desktop again, and neither of those two environments will ever come into contact with one another. If a Stealth Zone is ever lost or stolen, it's still protected by the encryption.
In terms of price, the product costs $479. That's a good value because you can loan contractors a secure Stealth Zone to work on without needing to upgrade their personal equipment. It might not be the perfect fit for everyone, but it fills a need that a lot of companies have because of their mix of internal and contractor employees.
MXI Security Stealth Zone Secure Portable Desktop
John Breeden II has run the Government Computer News testing lab for eight years. He is the author of "Guide to Webcams" (Prompt, 2000) and "Exploring Microsoft Office XP" (Cengage Learning, 2001).