Review: ÜberMask for OS X

I recently had the opportunity to look at ÜberMask, a new application from German software company, nova media which purports to help you hide your files from “curious eyes.” With so much of computer security employing encryption, this application’s different approach caught my eye, so I was curious to check it out.

Cloak Of Invisibility

If you’re looking for military grade encryption for the files on your Mac — the kind only Chloe O’Brian (edit: link fixed!) would be able to break — ÜberMask is not your app. However, while files that contain sensitive personal and financial data should probably be encrypted on your Mac, there are many times when you don’t need this kind of protection. What about personal files? Do you really need to subject your beautiful poems to AES-256 bit Blowfish encryption with yet another password to recall weeks, months, or even years from now? Haikus and love sonnets aside, we all have things stored on our Macs that we may wish to remain “private”, but are not worth encrypting into oblivion. I’m not a big fan of the “Macs are safe because of the Security Through Obscurity phenomenon”, but the old saying, “out of sight, out of mind,” is an old saying for a reason. Think of how many times you felt an item was “secure” based solely on the fact that others couldn’t see what you had, so you protected it with nothing more than a little padlock. This is true whether it’s a shed, a storage unit, or a car trunk. And the same can be said for files on our Macs. It’s hard to find something if you don’t know it’s there to begin with. ÜberMask uses this approach to security by allowing you to do just that: make your stuff invisible. How? ÜberMask hides files by using the UNIX trick of placing a period before the file name. It also changes some of the file’s meta-data, presumably to help it manage and track these files. I should note, you don’t need ÜberMask to do any of this, and there are other ways of hiding files too. However, ÜberMask makes it easy to hide and manage multiple files and folders from one, simple, interface.

Using ÜberMask

UberMask's Overview Window

Files Managed By ÜberMask

At first launch, ÜberMask will ask for your admin password, next display an info window showing the app’s keyboard shortcuts, and finally, an activation window (the app can be used in a Demo mode, 14 day trial). Once you’ve made it past all of this, the app displays its “Overview” window which has a dark graphite colored brushed metal background with the stop light buttons in graphite as well. ÜberMask’s main window is its only window and is not re-sizable (about 640X480). Because of this, the zoom button (normally green)  is disabled and, to my delight, clicking the red close button will Quit the app. The window is broken up into a familiar three-pane view similar to the Finder’s column view. From left to right, these columns display the folders containing the managed files, the name of the file, and when it was last modified. There’s a check box at the bottom of the window to “Only show managed objects.” In this way, the app allows you to see all files of a managed folder or just the ones you are hiding.

Between the Name and Last Modified columns there is a thin Mask column which displays ÜberMask’s mask icon. This mask icon is a status icon that indicates whether a file is managed by ÜberMask and whether it’s visible or invisible. If a file has a mask icon, it means it’s managed. A dark mask icon means the file is currently visible while a light mask icon means the file is currently invisible. Double clicking a file in the name column will open that file.

The ÜberMask Menu (evoked by the ⌥⌘U keystroke)

Right clicking a file in that same column will bring up a menu of options to “Release” the file if managed (or “Manage,” if not) or “Reveal in Finder.” It’s important to note that the windowed ÜberMask app itself doesn’t need to be running for it to do its magic. After a one-time launch, you can quit the app itself and go directly to the Finder. Once there, you can hunt down the files you wish to wrap in ÜberMask’s cloak of invisibility, select them and then bring up the ÜberMask menu by holding down the Option, Command and U keys (⌥⌘U). This menu is contextual, hence only displaying the options that are available for the file or folder selected. Always present is the “Launch ÜberMask” and the “Reveal (or Hide) Objects on Desktop” options. Depending on the status of the selected file or folder, the menu may offer additional options to hide, reveal, or release the selected object. Whatever the current visibility of the managed object is, ÜberMask will hide all managed objects when you shut down your Mac. The ⌥⌘U keystroke brings up ÜberMask’s contextual menu, while ⌥⌘B is ÜberMask’s BOSS key keystroke that makes ÜberMask hide all managed objects instantly. It’s important to note that both of these keystrokes are configurable. ÜberMask allows you to change both the character key and its modifiers (Control, Command, Option, or Shift) to whatever works for you. Aside from creating easier keyboard shortcuts and/or fixing conflicts with other apps, this is also good for security. For example, you could change the default keys if you’re concerned  someone either knows ÜberMask’s default shortcuts or might discover them to reveal your hidden files.


A quick video showing hiding and then revealing a file in ÜberMask

To hide a file, select the file(s) in the Finder, press ⌥⌘U to bring up the ÜberMask Menu, and choose “Hide Selected Object(s).” This will render the selected files invisible and may, optionally, play an alert sound. And, if your Mac’s graphics card supports it, ÜberMask will also display a circular shock wave rippling over your Desktop courtesy of OS X’s Core Animation. (I’m a sucker for this superfluous animated bit of flair.)

When you’re ready to reveal your hidden files, use the same method in reverse, this time choosing, “Reveal Hidden Objects.” As mentioned above, using ÜberMask’s BOSS key (⌥⌘B) will hide all managed objects. You only need to open the ÜberMask app if you’re not sure as to which files you have hidden or if, for some reason, ÜberMask  lost track.  Should this happen, ÜberMask has a Scan function that will locate all objects managed by ÜberMask.

In everyday use, I have not run into any big issues using ÜberMask. It claims to hide files not only by making them invisible, but also by shielding them from OS X’s Spotlight. I was curious how well this worked, so I tested this out and it works as advertised. Once hidden, the file disappeared from Spotlight’s search results. When it was revealed again, Spotlight found it. Seeing this work, I was curious how ÜberMask did this and how ÜberMask managed files would be treated by Time Machine. Knowing that Time Machine relies on the Mac’s file system events to know if a file has been changed or not, and if it needs to re-backup that file, I wondered how Time Machine would treat ÜberMask managed files. According to the developer, Time Machine will backup files whether visible or invisible and, at most, you might end up with two copies of the same file. I didn’t test this, so this is something to keep an eye on if the file or folder you’re hiding is rather large.

The only real issue I had with ÜberMask came when hiding files that were in my Dropbox folder. If I hid a file that was inside my Dropbox folder, all other computers linked to that Dropbox account went into an endless sync. Revealing the file again, restored order to Dropbox. I did this several times with several different files and all had the same result. I don’t consider this a huge issue because I don’t plan on keeping a file I want hidden, synced across multiple computers, but it’s still worth mentioning anyway and I did contact nova media to let them know. It’s also worth noting that ÜberMask doesn’t work with third party Finder replacements like Path Finder or Total Finder.

Conclusion

If you have need for something like ÜberMask for simple file security, then I recommend giving it a try. Yes, this is something you could do on your own without ÜberMask, but this app makes it easy to do, meaning it’s more likely you’ll do it. That and its $10 price tag make it almost a no brainer. Of course you’ll still want to keep critical data encrypted, but even here you could employ ÜberMask for extra security, because it may make sense to keep those encrypted files hidden too.

Review Summary

ÜberMask
Version: 1.0

Publisher: nova media
http://www.novamedia.de/en/mac-ubermask.html

FMEO Rating:
FMEO Rating: 4 Macs

Pricing: $9.95 (a demo is available)

System Requirements:
Mac OS X 10.6 or higher, Intel only

Strengths:
Low price, easy to use.

Weaknesses:
Only works with Finder, Intel & Snow Leopard only.

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