Secret-keeper Apps for the IPhone

As just about everyone who has ever used one will tell you, the iPhone is truly an amazing device. With its do-everything abilities--especially now with third-party software--it's the kind of device you're likely to carry everywhere. And what better use for a device you'll always have with you than to store important information--Web site logins, bank account information, social security numbers, insurance information, and more. As such, you may be tempted to use the iPhone's Notes program to store these little tidbits of information for fast access.

Ah, but there are some obvious problems to that approach that security-minded readers doubtlessly can rattle off. First, anyone you allow to use your iPhone will be able to access your notes. Second, if you were to ever lose your iPhone, your secret notes could easily fall into the wrong hands. So what's the solution, other than not storing this useful information on your iPhone (or iPod touch, for that matter)?

The answer lies in what I like to call "secret keeper" programs. This class of program aims to store your confidential information in an encrypted state, protected by a password only you know. On the Mac, there are many such programs, including PasswordWallet, SplashID, and Wallet to name just a few.

These kind of programs share several key features: they encrypt data, which you access with a secure password. They usually let you categorize the data you're storing so that you can track, for instance, logins and credit card numbers; you can customize categories to meet your needs. A final consideration involves data synchronization--ideally, you should be able to enter your data in one location and synchronize it to other Macs and portable devices.

Combing through the App Store, I wound up with three offerings that fit my definition of a "secret keeper" application--LockBox, eWallet, and SplashID. One is free, one has amazing data management skills, and one (for an additional cost) offers the ability to sync your secret data with a Mac or PC.

The free solution

LockBox offers a basic but functional interfaceLockBox is a simple secret tracker that worked well enough for those with basic needs--and you can't beat the non-existent price tag. The program restricts passwords to numbers only, but that password can be a very long string of numbers.

LockBox offers six categories (five defined, plus one "other") to organize your secrets. Within each category, however, the fields are the same--one title, two Information lines, and three Notes lines. This means you won't have a field labeled Credit Card Number for your credit cards, nor will you be able to create clickable URLs for Web site addresses.

You also can't sort your entries, nor can you search them--as noted, this is a secret keeper for those with basic needs. But if that's you, you'll probably find LockBox works well enough, and it doesn't cost anything to try.

Data management wizard

If you're more of an incredibly detail-oriented person, and you like to track every single tidbit of information about your secret data, eWallet may be your program. You can have multiple different storage areas (called wallets), each with unique passwords. Within each wallet, you can set up categories to further organize your secrets, which are stored on individual cards. Each card is of a certain type--bank account, credit card, library card, and even a "photo" type for storing images taken with the iPhone's camera. You can customize these card types to meet your needs.

The fields and options available for each template vary. Choose an e-mail template, for instance, and you'll get fields for the name of the system, user name, password, SMTP server, and 10 additional fields you can fill in as you wish. Not only can you fill in the values for each field, but you can change the titles and data types for each field on a given card (text, URL, e-mail, and so on). These fields are also smart--you can tap URL fields to launch Mobile Safari, and e-mail and phone number fields also do what you'd expect when they're tapped.

There's also an appearance page to control how each card looks onscreen; you can change the background and text colors, the shape and appearance of the card, and how hidden fields (those that hold passwords, for instance) are shown on the cards. You can use a photo (either a new one, or one stored on the iPhone already) as the backdrop for a card, if you wish.

If it's not clear by now, you can do a lot to customize how your data is stored and how it appears when using eWallet. All of this flexibility means you'll spend some time learning the program's interface, as there's a lot to learn.

At present, there's no way to sync this data back to your Mac, at least not using a native Mac program. Ilium Software has stated it has a native Mac client in the works, however. As of now, it's been reported that you can sync data to the company's Windows application running in Boot Camp (though I wasn't able to test this claim).

eWallet isn't perfect--there's no search feature, and you can't control the order of items in the list within a category (it's always alphabetical). However, with the ability to create multiple wallets and categories, this may not be much of a problem until your secrets collection gets quite large.

If you want the ultimate in control over how your data is stored and how it's presented, you'll probably be quite happy with eWallet. Ilium Software has been writing versions of eWallet for Windows and other mobile devices for many years, and its first iPhone application reflects that experience.

Sync your secrets

If the thought of entering your secrets in two programs in two places--on your Mac and on your iPhone--seems like a needless duplication of effort to you, then there's only one (as of now) solution to consider. SplashData's SplashID can sync the secret data from your iPhone to your Mac (or PC) desktop, assuming you're willing to spend US$20 for the desktop version of the program.

To enter your data, you first set up categories (such as Work or Home), and then create records within those categories. Each record is assigned a type, such as frequent flyer, serial numbers, or Web logins. There are a large number of pre-defined types, each of which contains 10 field types whose titles can be edited to your liking. You can also add your own data types, so if you have something you'd like to track that doesn't fit the existing types, you're not forced to make it fit. Within a type, you can set a field to be masked, which is what you'll want to do for passwords and other sensitive data. When masked, only stars will be displayed while viewing the record; tap the stars, though, and the hidden value will appear.

You can assign an icon to each record, independent of whichever data type you assigned to it. You can also generate strong passwords while creating a record--this is very useful when signing up on a Web site, for instance. Just tap the types of characters you'd like in your password, set the slider to the length of password, and click Generate. You'll even see a slider displaying the password's strength, so you can judge its effectiveness. Unfortunately, because the iPhone lacks copy-and-paste, you won't be able to use these generated passwords easily in Mobile Safari; they're most useful when you're using your iPhone as a reference device while working on a laptop, for example--where you'll at least be able to see the password as you type it into the browser window.

Your records are grouped within a category by type, so that all your Web logins will be found in the same folder. (There's also an "All Types" view if you want to see everything at once.) This makes it easy to find a record, assuming you remember what type you assigned to it. If you don't remember, however, a live search function makes it easy to find--as you type, you'll see a list of types that contain matching records; a quick tap will drill into that type so you can see if the record you're searching for is in that type group.

A Tools menu provides access to features such as when to lock SplashID; you can lock immediately when you switch apps or the iPhone sleeps, or after a pre-set delay. You can also edit categories and types, delete records, sync with the desktop application, read a quick start guide, and change your password from this screen.

I tested the sync feature, and it worked well in my testing. You can change data on the Mac or on the iPhone, and the next time you sync, those changes are communicated between the two devices. To sync, your iPhone and Mac must be on the same wireless network--no syncing over the EDGE network or via iTunes. You control syncing from the iPhone; tapping a button on the Tools screen initiates the process, which went quite quickly with my relatively small data set.

The program did crash on me once during testing, dumping me back to the iPhone's home screen. (This also happened with some of the programs I didn't review, so it's not unique to SplashID.) The only other problem I ran into was that the iPhone's magnifying glass feature didn't work quite right. After the magnifying glass appeared, I was unable to get it to move through the text, so I had to fix typos by backspacing over the existing text.

Overall, I liked SplashID the best of the programs I tested--SplashData has been writing versions of SplashID for other platforms and mobile devices for 10 years, and its experience shows in this iPhone app. While eWallet offers more control over the presentation and storage of your data, its interface is complex, and it takes time to master. SplashID has a simpler interface, a very usable search function, and most important, the ability to synchronize your private data between a Mac (or PC) and your iPhone--entering data once instead of twice is an appealing feature, especially if you have a lot of secret data to track.

If you intend to keep confidential data on your iPhone or iPod touch, I strongly recommend you use one of these types of programs to make sure that data is encrypted and protected by a password--it's a simple and relatively cheap thing to do, and you'll feel a lot better if you ever happen to lose your device.

All three programs reviewed are compatible with any iPhone or iPod touch running the iPhone 2.0 software update.

[Senior editor Rob Griffiths runs Mac OS X Hints.]

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