When Jon Hundley’s computer was compromised by hackers, he ended up having to reinstall practically everything. Hundley, a developer, looked around for a piece of software that would allow him to keep tabs on what his computer was connecting to behind the scenes, but couldn’t find anything that worked.
“I spent ages trying to find a product that did what I was looking for and there was just nothing out there,” he says. “So I decided to build one.”
The result is GlassWire, a beautiful and free Windows application, which lets users visualize network activity in an easy-to-understand, real-time graph. With the repercussions of the recent iCloud hacking incident reminding everyone of the importance of online security, GlassWire does the impossible: It makes web monitoring interesting.
“I think many people may not realize what is happening on their computers and don’t understand traffic flows and traffic volume consumption,” says cofounder Anton Bondar. “With GlassWire you will see what applications use your Internet bandwidth, where they go, and how heavy the traffic exchange is. This helps user understand what is going on and brings attention to suspicious Internet activities.”
Since Hundley and Bondar had worked together in the past–they cofounded and then sold webcam startup ManyCam last year–getting GlassWire started was straightforward. The challenge was designing it to be the most elegant solution possible.
“I’d downloaded a number of different firewalls that ask you to approve certain permissions, but after a while I found that I’d just click ‘OK’ to get them to go away,” Hundley says. “I think a lot of people do that–you just get lazy. It was a difficult problem to get around.”
The solution the pair settled on centered around one simple thing: context. In software designed to put the user back in control of their bandwidth it was vital that users were in a position to make the most informed choice possible.
“If you have a graph you can look at, it’s not like an alert that interrupts you by appearing on-screen,” Hundley continues. “You can actually look to see what’s having an impact on your computer and how.”
GlassWire isn’t the first piece of software to help you monitor web usage, but it might be the most attractive. Instead of throwing the user in at the deep end with complex charts of figures–or TCP and UDP splits–GlassWire’s data visualizations fill the user in on what’s happening with no more than a simple glance required. In doing so it achieves the impossible: making web monitoring sexy.
“Everyone’s talking about and trying to create beautiful mobile apps these days, but there are still 1.5 billion Windows desktop users,” Hundley says. “With all the focus on mobile, there’s a real opportunity for developers to create something that’s exciting for desktops–particularly when it does a useful job, too.”
This design was about more than simple aesthetics, though. For example, when choosing whether to visualize the peaks and troughs of Internet use on a graph, Hundley and Bondar decided to use curved lines rather than spikes. Although spikes in bandwidth use are more true to life, by incorporating curved lines the user has a better idea of trends in data use.
Context was also the reasoning behind arguably the software’s niftiest feature, the ability to monitor Internet usage going back in time.
“It was really important to us that you’d be able to go back in time and see what happened in the past, because it puts everything in perspective,” Hundley says. “For instance, I can see that yesterday I had a big spike in bandwidth. By mousing over the graph I can then click that spike and see exactly what applications were doing at that time, in terms of who they were talking to.”
The software gives the user the ability to dive more deeply into data, but rather than doing this upfront, explorations feel more organic. If users don’t regularly visit visit African, Asian, or South America websites, for example, they may be interested to look into why there could be repeated activity related to these locations, as this could suggest malicious activities or spyware. An Alerts tab lets users view any new programs which have connected to the web recently, while a Usage bar lets them filter data analytically by host, app, or other categories.
Don’t like what you see? A simple firewall display lets you break any connection with a single click.
Although GlassWire’s not yet a sufficient firewall to act without support, going forward Hundley says this is something he is looking at.
“There’s a lot we want to still do,” he says. “From providing you with more detailed information about ports to letting you go even further back in your data. At the moment, we let you track back 30 days. We want that to be a year. From all our installs we’ve had a lot of feedback, and we’re working on as much as we can. There are many, many ideas we’re really excited about.”