An­other hedge against hack­ing

Cujo is a bowl-size fire­wall de­vice that hard-wires into a home router.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Paresh Dave

Over the last three years, Ei­naras Gravrock has turned his con­cerns as a par­ent into a fast-grow­ing cy­ber­se­cu­rity start-up.

Gravrock had grown anx­ious about his chil­dren’s pri­vacy when he heard about baby mon­i­tors be­ing hacked. By the time they started play­ing with iPads, he wanted pro­tec­tion.

What he ended up with is Cujo, a bowl-size fire­wall de­vice that hard-wires into a home router, pro­vid­ing for dig­i­tal se­cu­rity what a guard dog brings to phys­i­cal de­fense.

Gravrock be­lieved enough in the idea that he di­vested from and stepped down as chief ex­ec­u­tive of Icon­ery, an on­line shop for jew­elry that he co-founded. Icon­ery con­tin­ues to op­er­ate.

For Cujo, he’s leaned on the ex­per­tise of Yuri Fray­man, a friend who runs cy­ber­se­cu­rity soft­ware maker Zenedge. Fray­man had seen the need for Cujo first­hand. A cou­ple of years be­fore, his busi­ness clients be­gan de­mand­ing that his home have as much cy­ber­se­cu­rity as his cor­po­rate of­fice.

Gravrock raised $330,000 off a Kick­starter crowd­fund­ing page, opened head­quar­ters in El Se­gundo and agreed to a man­u­fac­tur­ing deal with a fac­tory in Illi­nois.

Now, Cujo is near­ing 100,000 users and 100 em-

ploy­ees. The de­vice is stocked at Best Buy and on Ama­zon.com for $250.

Cujo picked up $11 mil­lion from 27 in­vestors in a re­cent fi­nanc­ing round, in­clud­ing ear­lier loans con­verted into stock. In­vestors in­clude TA Ven­tures in Ukraine, USC ad­junct busi­ness pro­fes­sor Ivan Nikkhoo and, of course, Fray­man.

Does Cujo work?

Gravrock knows what he’s sell­ing won’t stop ev­ery com­puter virus or hacker. But he sees $250 as a nec­es­sary ex­pense to de­ter the in­con­ve­niences that come with be­ing hacked. The av­er­age user sees about five to seven sus­pi­cious con­nec­tions blocked each week, he said.

“For some­one in­stalling ADT or a Ring, it’s the next fron­tier,” he said, re­fer­ring to home se­cu­rity op­tions. “Cujo is not that sil­ver bul­let, but be­ing vig­i­lant and ed­u­cated about the prob­lem, you have to ap­ply best prac­tices.”

Oth­ers in the in­dus­try back up that view.

“It’s a good step in the right di­rec­tion for home con­sumers,” said Adriel De­sau­tels, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ne­tra­gard, which tests se­cu­rity at com­pa­nies in gaming, health and fi­nance. “It’s go­ing to elim­i­nate the lowhang­ing fruit.”

But De­sau­tels cau­tioned that Cujo alone might only take a con­sumer to 3 from 1 on a 100-point scale of se­cu­rity. That score could im­prove if Cujo suc­ceeds on plans to add in­creased func­tion­al­ity.

Busi­ness cus­tomers who pur­chased Cujo for em­ploy­ees have brought in au­di­tors to test Cujo’s ef­fec­tive­ness, but Gravrock said there are no plans to pub­lish re­sults. De­sau­tels said he would like to see au­dits of Cujo’s ef­fec­tive­ness in pro­tect­ing the con­fi­den­tial­ity, in­tegrity and avail­abil­ity of in­for­ma­tion pass­ing on­line through a home.

How Cujo works

Cujo works by an­a­lyz­ing router traf­fic data. It can see what com­puter your own de­vice is con­nect­ing to on the In­ter­net, how much in­for­ma­tion is be­ing trans­ferred and the speed at which it’s be­ing sent.

In rel­a­tive terms, Cujo sees cars on a road, but not the in­te­ri­ors of them. Un­like some ri­vals, the com­pany doesn’t use deep packet in­spec­tion soft­ware to an­a­lyze the in­nards, a tac­tic of­ten used in cor­po­rate fire­walls and cen­sor­ship soft­ware.

In a few days of test­ing Cujo, the fire­wall mostly de­nied con­nec­tions to track­ing ser­vices ap­par­ently re­lated to on­line ad tech­nol­ogy. They prob­a­bly be­longed on an in­dus­try list of flagged web­sites. The de­vice is meant to learn a user’s be­hav­ior over time, so that, for in­stance, a con­nec­tion be­tween a we­b­cam and a com­puter in Rus­sia is thwarted, ex­cept in homes where de­vices of­ten visit Rus­sian web­sites.

Cujo’s sys­tem is “look­ing for tell­tale signs,” Gravrock said. “It col­lects a cou­ple of hun­dred data points and builds out a de­ci­sion on the fly.”

Traf­fic data are sent to Cujo’s servers, where they are scram­bled and stored with pass­word pro­tec­tion. It hires con­sul­tants to test the se­cu­rity of its own sys­tem. Cujo stores data as long as a week, depend­ing on whether the in­for­ma­tion proves use­ful in im­prov­ing the soft­ware that de­tects sus­pi­cious con­nec­tions.

A Cujo mo­bile app is­sues alerts about blocked traf­fic and serves as a hub for parental con­trols. In test­ing, Cujo didn’t no­tice­ably slow web­site load times, but it needed to be dis­abled sev­eral times when web­sites didn’t load for an uniden­ti­fied rea­son. The set-up process also pro­duced un­spec­i­fied er­rors, though log­ging out and log­ging back in did the trick.

Most of the com­plaints that stem from Cujo come from com­plex home net­work set-ups or spe­cific de­vices that lead to com­mu­ni­ca­tions is­sues with the fire­wall. That might make it a bad fit for some users.

Cujo of­fers cus­tomer ser­vice through video chat on its app 16 hours a day, though the hours aren’t promi­nently dis­played — an is­sue the com­pany said it would ad­dress.

The com­pany fur­ther tries to ame­lio­rate any con­cerns by mod­el­ing it­self on video door­bell maker Ring, which in­cludes its chief ex­ec­u­tive’s emails on pack­ag­ing. With Cujo, new users get an email with Gravrock’s cell­phone num­ber and email ad­dress.

Cujo’s com­pe­ti­tion

Cujo has ri­vals on three fronts: Router mak­ers, an­tivirus soft­ware de­vel­op­ers and other hard­ware star­tups.

Ex­perts say there’s lit­tle rea­son Linksys, Net­gear or other router brands can’t match Cujo’s fea­tures — and many are mov­ing in that di­rec­tion af­ter years of bury­ing set­tings and data to which Cujo’s app pro­vides sim­ple ac­cess.

Gravrock said Cujo de­cided not to com­pete with such router mak­ers be­cause it would have to wade into the fierce tech­ni­cal com­pe­ti­tion to make Wi-Fi speeds faster, which could dis­tract from its se­cu­rity fo­cus.

An­tivirus pro­tec­tion providers are hav­ing to adapt be­cause in­stalling soft­ware on de­vices is no longer prac­ti­cal as a va­ri­ety of new ap­pli­ances go on­line, in­clud­ing toast­ers and light bulbs. Nor­ton’s $250 Core router dou­bles as a home net­work fire­wall with a $10-a-month sub­scrip­tion.

New com­pa­nies such as Bit­de­fender, Keezel, RATrap and Dojo of­fer de­vices com­pa­ra­ble to the Cujo at lower prices.

About 70% of Cujo cus­tomers pay $250 for the de­vice up­front. The re­main­der opt to pay about $100 up­front, but then $9 a month in­def­i­nitely for ser­vice.

The com­pany has re­ceived mar­ket­ing help by part­ner­ing with or­ga­ni­za­tions, such as one pro­mot­ing chil­dren’s safety, to dis­trib­ute de­vices to mem­bers. Cujo de­clined to iden­tify cus­tomers or part­ners by name.

Grav­ock has been lead­ing com­pa­nies since fin­ish­ing at USC in 2009. Be­fore the jew­elry web­site, he co­founded Mod­nique, a on­ce­fast-grow­ing on­line re­tailer of cloth­ing in Re­dondo Beach. An­other di­vi­sion of the com­pany strug­gled fi­nan­cially, lead­ing to a bank­ruptcy fire sale in 2015.

paresh.dave@la­times.com Twit­ter: @peard33

Edgaras Marozas Cujo

CUJO, which is near­ing 100,000 users and 100 em­ploy­ees, picked up $11 mil­lion from 27 in­vestors in a re­cent fi­nanc­ing round. The de­vice sells for $250.

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