Secure Internet Browsing Away From Home
Do you need to check your bank account balance while on the road or, for that matter, while at your local coffee shop? Do you need to book that flight/tour/make an purchase through the Internet? Do you want to check your email/facebook/your favorite travel blog without someone eavesdropping on your activities when using a WiFi network? I am guessing that most people would answer 'Yes' to some or all of the above. I certainly find myself doing all of the above activities regularly while on the road.
(Most) WiFi/Wireless Networks Are Not Secure
Did you know that the public WiFi networks - the ones that do not require a password to log in, such as some networks at the airports, coffee shops, or your neighbors - do not encrypt or protect the data you are transmitting? Furthermore, the majority of WiFi networks that have a basic password set up still choose to use an encryption scheme that is very easily hackable by anyone that can run a google search and download a myriad of tools to pick up the data that your computer transmits while connected to those networks.
My Need For Secure Internet While Traveling
Being on the road for months, I do have to check my bank statements and pay my credit cards once in a while. In my case, because I have a bunch of checking accounts and a few doezen credit cards from all the sign-up bonus deals and 0% balance transfer offers, I batch statement checking and payment scheduling and do it twice a month. That means that twice a month I need to access my very sensitive financial information.
So far, I have been pretty fortunate to be able to do this either through private internet connections while couchsurfing with someone I trust or while at a Regus business lounges. While neither guarantees that my data were secure, there was less of a chance that someone was eavesdropping on those networks compared to public WiFi available in coffee shops and hostels.
Now, being away from the big cities in South East Asia, I neither couchsurf, nor have the access to business lounges so today I finally decided to take the plunge and figure out how I can secure my Internet connection while on the road and it turned out to be super easy (and free)! I would highly encourage anyone traveling to do the same thing to protect yourself while browsing anywhere in public.
The Answer - Virtual Private Network (VPN)
So, you might be wondering what the heck a VPN really is. Good question! Essentially, it is a way of protecting (encrypting) the data your computer transmits over an internet connection (whether wired or wireless). Instead of drawing pretty pictures or trying to come up with a simple explanation of how it works, I will just let you watch this quick video from proXPN that explains how their (and other) VPNs work:
I have heard about VPNs before, and even tried to set up some encryption for my wireless connections a while ago, but quickly gave up on the idea as it used to be pretty confusing - proxies, VPNs, RSS encryption, blah, blah, blah. Turns out, a few things have changed over the years and now VPN setup is ridiculously easy.
By the way, if you are not comfortable with the term 'encryption', just think of it as a cypher. Essentially, it is the same thing - using some scheme to change the data you are transmitting such that even if someone logs them or looks at them, they will not be able to understand what the data really are and what you are doing with it.
Choosing a VPN
I really did not know much about VPNs, but a quick google search got me started with an article from eSecurity Planet describing how VPNs work and overviewing a couple of paid solutions. Next, I read a ComputerWorld article which provided similar information and compared performance of three paid services. Lastly, I decided to see if I can find a free solution and stumbled upon the MakeUseOf article outlining seven free services.
Only a couple of the free services were not Windows-only (I travel with Macbook Air) and after checking out proXPN, I decided to give them a shot. Unlike other services, they do not limit amount of traffic for free accounts nor do they display advertisements when using their services. However, they do limit the download speeds to 300kbps. Looking through their FAQ, they use the same model as Dropbox and Evernote for providing the free service, essentially counting on users to fall in love with them and upgrade to a paid premium account. That made sense so I decided to give it a shot.
proXPN VPN Setup
Similarly to other services, proXPN utilizes a client application to connect to their servers. The Mac version is still in beta and was a quick download from their website. The setup was a breeze and the signup for the new account was painless with the only two pieces information needed being your email and password (they did send out a validation email with a link to click to activate the account). That is it!
proXPN VPN Performance
After proXPN client connected to the server, it gave me a seven second count down prior to refreshing a webpage I had open. After that, it was completely transparent. I did notice slower loading times since the free services utilizes only one server in Miami, which is probably overloaded with traffic. I will keep testing it for the next few days to see how bad of a slowdown it actually is. I may just scale back to turn it on when I really need it (downloading financial information, buying something online), while keeping it off for the day-to-day browsing.
The Proxy Bonus of VPN
A side bonus of setting up a VPN is the fact that your computer appears as being located in the same place as the VPN server. In my case with proXPN, I would appear as being located in Miami. The real benefit of this is that internet sites that block some content based on your location (such as Hulu, youtube, etc) will think that I am still in the US and allow me to watch the shows that I cannot technically access from Thailand. I do not really watch much of that stuff, but it could help eliminating some of the annoyances such as youtube not playing the sound for my skydiving video when I tried to access it from Germany.