The other day, yesterday to be exact, I was sitting in the heart of Manhattan quietly observing my surroundings.
Not Time Square, that’s the other heart, I’m talking about Herald square, which is at the corner of 34th Street and Broadway. It’s a major junction and myriads of people hang out here especially when the weather is temperate.
Well, last night was cool, laughter was in the air and I opened my laptop to catch any free Wi-Fi hotspots.
Instantly, I noticed a free Wi-Fi network named 34st Hotspot Free Wi-Fi.
I was tempted for a moment but then glanced and realized this hotspot is 100% insecure.
There were thousands of people bustling about. Some were sitting using smartphones, others had computers propped open and some, I surmise, were completely out of view, perhaps lurking in the dark recesses of the city with Netstumbler open, surreptitiously sniffing passwords on the network.
Staying Safe on Free Networks
Whenever you connect to a public wireless network, especially a free Wi-Fi hotspot, security should be paramount. Everything else is subordinate to security because you’re using an untrusted medium.
A few weeks ago I shared a few secrets for protecting your computer while using the public Internet, but today it occurred to me there’s more you can do to guard your on-line privacy.
One of the easiest ways to lock down your network activities is to use a free VPN service.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and it lets you connect your devices to a virtual network which encrypts the data stream which hides your history and Internet records from prying eyes.
Using a VPN service essentially turns your computer into an anonymous node so the next time you use a Wi-Fi hotspot in a hotel, airport, public atrium or client’s office, all your activities are obfuscated.
AnchorFree by Hotspot Shield is one of the best free VPN solutions around because it automatically secures your connection as soon as it detects an unsecured network. In addition, it intercepts phishers and spammers and hides your logins. It isn’t perfect as you’ll see in my report, but it’s categorically better than using the net completely exposed to Hackers.
How it works
This is the way it works:
Normally when you connect to a website, it sees your location and IP address so technically, the data service provider could extrapolate private information from your web session.
Conversely, with a free VPN solution such as Hotspot Shield, you create an impenetrable wall between your computer and the internet service provider. If the network provider (or a hacker) tried to view your data all they would see is encrypted traffic: basically strings of random symbols.
How to get started
The software is available for PC, Mac and even your iPhone and is pretty popular: the site boast over 15,000,000 downloads (I haven’t confimed this though). But it’s still a good choice. With the endorsement of Tim Brookes from Makeuseof.com and one of the the top free VPN services according to Ashish Gharti of Sucras.com, it’s definitely worth investigating.
To get started, go to http://www.hsselite.com and run the installation wizard.
The setup process is a breeze and completes in less than a minute.
Let me show you how easy it is to use. Click Finish
Alright now check this out
This is the Hotspot Shield alert box that loads after connecting to a network. It should pop-up automatically when you connect to a network. If you don’t see it, just click the green little connected icon in the system tray near the time.
Here’s what it looks like on my Mac Mini
If you click the blue Test protection link, a browser will open displaying your masked IP.
For example, I’m in New York City right now; however, when I click Test Protection I see that my IP address is 22.214.171.124 with a location in Sunnyvale, CA!
Now before you get too excited I should explain a few things
Hotspot Shield does it’s best to mask your true IP. If you visit ipchicken.com or a similar IP service tool you’ll corroborate the fact that your IP is actually masked. But try this:
It’s not 100%
Type what is my IP into Google and it’ll actually reveal your REAL IP address even with Hotspot Shield running. You’ll see it in the first hit. This little trick illustrates that Hotspot Shield doesn’t give you 100% anonymity. In other words, don’t think you are completely secure but you are still better off using HSS than nothing at all.
The other caveat is that Hotspot Shield will significantly slow your network connection down. In order to work correctly, VPN has to encapsulate each IP datagram inside what’s known as an IPSec (IP Security) packet. Since each packet is encrypted creating a virtual tunnel between your computer and the Internet there will be a performance hit.
Location Side Effects
The last thing to note is since your location changes some websites will give you the weather, shopping information, and local ads from your fake location not your current location. So my Google searching will show local results from Sunnyvale, CA not New York City. Just something to keep in mind.
A few more things to think about
So there are a few gotchas, but this is the thing: HSS really excels when you realize that it wasn’t intended to give you secure access at ultrafast speeds. The designers didn’t intent for blazing fast downloads while you pull down your complete photo collection from your free 100GB Shared.com account.
The download is going to be slow. That’s just the nature of how this stuff works.
Also, you still shouldn’t do ultra sensitive work using a public network with any VPN solution.
Think about it. With hundreds of people walking by, anyone can stand behind you over your shoulder and see what you’re doing.
What good is a super secure encrypted connection when Joe Hacker is sitting behind you in the coffee shop viewing your keystrokes?
So we still need to be sagacious and circumspect when using the Internet in public spaces. But one things is for sure, with Hotspot Shield working for you, your online activities are more protected than they would be without any protection at all. Keep the trade offs in mind and you’ll be fine.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, I strongly suggest that you forbear from conducting any private transactions on the public Internet. Don’t check your bank statements, medial records or tax forms in an open forum. If it isn’t an emergency wait until you get to work or your home network. However, if it’s an exigent matter and you must do it, then arm yourself with a free VPN solution like Hotspot Shield and you should be okay.
Have you had success with Hotspot Shield? What other free VPN tools do you love? Let me know in the comments.