Thursday, March 03, 2011

Securing notes across my devices

I wanted a secure way to access and edit text notes on my iOS devices (iPhone and iPad) and also on my 'desktop' devices (Macs and Windows), with the notes synchronised across all of those devices, so that any amendments on one device would show up swiftly on all of the others.

I was already using the excellent Dropbox in conjunction with PlainText (on my iOS devices), TextWrangler (Mac), and WordPad (Windows) to work with clear text. Using these tools I can read or edit these text files on any of these devices. I also use Dropbox to sync other document types, including Office/iWork files, but only read access on the iOS devices (although I know there are Dropbox-enabled 'Office' apps available) — but as long as I could edit my text files from my iPhone, the Office files could wait until I got back to my Mac.

This setup was so useful to me that I started wanting to put sensitive information in there. Work stuff: Unix commands, reports, IP addresses, usernames, even passwords. But that's not really a good idea, is it? You don't put sensitive work information on a 3rd-party storage service — well, not unless you can encrypt it in a way that no-one else can decrypt.

I was already using encrypted .dmg files on my Mac to store sensitive data, but I wasn't aware of any tools that could open these on iOS or Windows.

Hence my search for an encrypted equivalent of this toolset began.

Has anyone else found the solution yet? I tweeted the question. I audiobooed my question. No answer was forthcoming.

I searched the Apple App Store for words like 'encrypt', and all I seemed to get were password manager/autofill apps. One of the most popular and expensive ones of these seemed to be one called '1Password'. Some of my Twitter friends seem to like it. But that's not really what I was after. I wasn't looking for an app to auto-fill my passwords into websites.

Evernote is a tool I've been trying to find a good use case for for a long time. They've got encrypted note support... but not on the iOS apps, it seems.

Pop the text in a draft email on our Exchange server? The iPhone talks to the server using SSL, so that's fine, but would all my email clients store their local cache in an encrypted form? No.

Then I thought, why not look on the Dropbox website - they seem to have a healthy ecosystem of 3rd-party companion apps. So I scanned through their page of apps (, and found a few promising ones...

1Password ( is the popular password manager/autofill app, but not cheap, at $14.99 for the iPad/iPhone version, $39.95 for the Mac version and $29.95 for Windows.

SafeWallet ( seemed similar to 1Password but at a lower price ($15 for the Mac version, $3 for iPhone).

Password Touch ( has the advantage of being compatible with the open source 'Password Safe' database, meaning the desktop application would be free, and the total cost could be just $3 for the iPhone app. Unfortunately, the desktop version is Windows only!

Codebook ( seemed like a more pertinent app. Rather than being a password manager, this was actually intended for big chunks of text. That's what I was actually after! Again, based on some kind of Open Source encryption standard but with their own proprietary twist which means there's effectively no desktop counterpart. So no.

So, with the last two apps ruled out for technical limitations, I was left with the choice of SafeWallet and 1Password — both of which have a trial version of the Mac desktop app available to download. So I downloaded both and installed them on my Mac.

I pasted a nice long chunk of text into a text note in SafeWallet, but it only showed about 3 lines, even though all the text was in there, and I could find no way to resize the text box to make the viewable area larger (to make it actually practical). Not encouraging.

Then I fired up 1Password. The whole look and feel of the app was much more secure and trustworthy somehow. I created a secure note. A nice big text box, and even a space at the bottom of the note to drag and drop attachments onto. That was much more like it! Sync'ed it to Dropbox. Very simple and intuitive. But would it be this good on the iPhone?

There's no free trial version of 1Password for iPhone. And the trial version of SafeWallet doesn't do syncing.

I searched on the web to see if I could find any reviews of 1Password on iPhone that would cover the notes feature. YouTube had a bunch of video reviews, but these all focused on the password management/autofill functionality. I feared perhaps the notes would be inaccessible on the iPhone, or at most read-only.

And then my friend Pewari ( came to the rescue with an audioboo. She was a very happy user of 1Password on her iPhone, and though she had never used the notes feature, she was kind enough to try it out and in the very same boo she reported that indeed it did work!

That was all the recommendation I needed. I then bought the iOS version on my iPhone, installed it, connected it to my Dropbox, and 'boom!' there were all my secure notes.

So now I'm happy. I may even start using it as a password manager/autofill tool, too, as people seem to rave about this functionality. Sure, I know after 30 days the trial version on my Mac will expire, and I will have to shell out $40 to retain desktop access, but I think it is worth it. I can keep my text safe and secure. It's backed up, it's easily accessible and amendable on all my devices, and I can be sure it can't be read by anyone but me.

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