The recent proliferation of internet snooping tools like Firesheep — which allows a semi-knowledgable hacker to hijack any number of your personal accounts — highlights an under-examined need for many travelers: A secure connection to the internet.
After all, most people are just worried about how they are going to connect to the internet as they travel — not even considering how safe that connection is. A person on the same network as you can actually see the information you’re sending and receiving — or sometimes even read the files on your hard drive.
Sound alarmist? Take a moment to look your computer’s network file browser the next time you hop online in a hotel, on a plane, or at a free WiFi hotspot and you’ll probably see a number of other computers visible. Some of them even probably have their file sharing turned on, exposing all sorts of personal data, photos, etc. to theft or vandalism.
This post on the Many Moon Honeymoon makes some helpful suggestions for minimizing that risk — but keep this in mind: Too often, proxies or other programs which attempt to force a HTTPS connection only force encryption of your logon (otherwise called “authentication”). This will protect your password, but not the subsequent data transmitted back and forth if the connection falls back to an unsecured, HTTP mode.
Disclosing your personal information isn’t the only pitfall you’ll have to avoid while getting online from different parts of the globe. In many parts of the world, access to certain websites and services like Skype, YouTube, and Facebook is blocked by government decree!1
Even in less restrictive cultures, some internet service providers also block or slow down popular file-sharing programs with sophisticated filtering on their networks. And some websites only allow traffic from certain countries — Hulu, for example, only allows you to connect if you’re in the United States. If you can’t reach a reliable, U.S.-based proxy from wherever you are, then it’s no 30 Rock for you!
The Best Of Both Worlds
Frequent (or long-term) travelers should prepare for these situations. For many, connecting through a VPN (a “virtual private network”) is a good solution. When used correctly, a VPN encapsulates all your internet traffic inside an encrypted tunnel — making it much more difficult to hijack, block, or intercept.
There are a number of great companies out there who provide this much-needed service: I use one called VyprVPN.
What Is VyprVPN
VyprVPN2 is a private service offered by Golden Frog — a company that works in partnership with Giganews, which is one of the largest USENET providers in the world. (I mention the Giganews tie-in because you can buy the VPN service on its own or as part of bundle which includes USENET service.)
VyprVPN allows you to connect to one a number of VPN servers worldwide. This is an important detail: Having a choice of where your VPN is located really matters when you’re on the road (and sometimes even before you leave home) because using an encrypted VPN connection can sometimes slow down your Internet browsing speed. It’s good to be able to choose a VPN server that is physically close to minimize this, but another way that this comes in handy is when you are contending with a nationwide blockage of an Internet site.
Oftentimes, a country that block access to websites like Facebook or Twitter will also attempt to block services like VyprVPN which allow untrammeled access to the Internet. It’s a game of cat and mouse and, if you find that one VPN server is being blocked, it is helpful to know that there are many other servers that you can try. And if you connect to Hulu or Netflix through an U.S.-based server, you won’t have to miss your favorite shows.3
No matter if you use a PC, a Mac, or a mobile device (like an iPhone, iPod Touch, Android) — there are simple setup instructions available.They’re also beginning to rolling out an app which makes this process even easier! Once configured, you just turn the service on and off as needed.
I’ve been in a few dozen different countries since I subscribed to VyprVPN and, for one reason or another, I’ve needed it on almost every trip. It worked — and worked well — in almost every place that I tried to use it. Even in notoriously-blocked zones within Asia and the Middle East, I could generally access everything I wanted to.
Was it 100% effective? No.4
Sometimes it was difficult to get through to Skype from the U.A.E., although with persistence I was able to do so. The Gulf states are getting pretty good at internet filtration by now, and so I imagine this had more to do with the competence of the people blocking the traffic than the quality of the VPN service.
But in most cases, VyprVPN kept me connected in situations where I would have been blocked — and safe in situations when I would have otherwise been exposed.
I tend to think of internet security as a process or, put another way, a collection of small-but-meaningful habits that reduce risk and maximize access to information wherever I am.
If you don’t mind paying a little something for it, VPNs add a solid layer of protection at WiFi hotspots and other unsecured networks. It doesn’t take the place of common sense, but services like VyprVPN add a robust level of security and flexibility as you travel around the world
And, believe me, that’s of real comfort when you’re a long away from home!
- The irony is that some of the same companies who espouse freedom of expression are also the same ones helping the countries to block access to information, so you’ll want to have a good solution in place before you get on the plane. In case you didn’t, This article by Anil at Foxnomad has some good suggestions for using “proxy servers” and anonymizers to try to regain access. [↩]
- Disclosure: They will pay me an affiliate fee if you subscribe using one of these links. [↩]
- Seriously though, only at the end of the day, okay? After all, you’re traveling the world! [↩]
- And, by the way, nothing is. [↩]