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Use Your Laptop Away From Home? You MUST Use a VPN.

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A VPN (virtual private network) is a secure ‘tunnel’ that uses encryption to send and receive data securely and in secrecy. It is something that sounds complicated but it is genuinely one of the easiest security features you can use. You click one button when you want to turn it on and that’s it. It turns off with one more click of a button. It is absolutely necessary for when we are sending emails and browsing the internet when we’re away from home (and therefore on an untrusted WiFi network). Typically, it is used for web browsing but can also be setup to cover all the connections from your device so that all internet traffic sent and received is kept private and secure.

How does a VPN Work?

VPN products also hide your location (known as an ‘IP address’). Our IP Address acts as a ‘Return to Sender’ address on the back of a letter. Want to find out your IP address? Go to whatismyipaddress.com

There is a common misconception from Hollywood films that once someone has an IP address, they can easily trace their exact physical location. That is not true, it is very difficult and requires in-depth technical expertise to even try. However, there are many other reasons you’d want to hide your IP even if people cannot pinpoint your exact physical location. With VPNs you can even ‘mask’ your location making you appear wherever in the world you like.

VPNs are used by many walks of life…activists wanting to circumvent censorship (China, North Korea), intelligence agencies, militaries, families to protect their children and ensure their privacy and journalists to do research on stories and communicate securely with sources.

So, why would we want to hide our IP address?

It gives away quite a lot about us, more than you may have previously thought. If I had your IP address, it would be possible to;

  • Find clues to your real-world home address.
  • Find enough information to attempt to hack into your computer.
  • Find details about your web history.
  • Reveal organisational affiliations you have like who your employer is, the gym you use or which coffee shops you frequent.

The story of Simon Bunce exemplifies why a VPN is so important...

Case Study: Simon Bunce
VPNs mitigate all of these risks and that’s why I love them. Simon Bunce, a young chap from Hampshire could have benefitted from using a VPN when he was doing his online shopping. Instead, he had his credit card details stolen and used without his permission. This resulted in him being falsely accused as a paedophile, he lost his £120,000 / year job, made financially bankrupt and was cut off by his own family (aside from his wife who stood by him). Hampshire Police arrested Simon as part of Operation Ore, the UK's largest ever police hunt against internet paedophiles. He was arrested on suspicion of possession of indecent images of children, downloading indecent images of children and incitement to distribute indecent images of children.

Simon confided in his father who cut him off and instructed the remainder of the family to do so. Losing his job and family, Mr Bunce was forced to consider selling his house. Simon was able to use the US Freedom of Information Act to obtain a copy of all of the relevant material from the internet transactions that had been made in his name. Fortunately, via this information request Simon could see that the IP address used to enter his credit card information was based in Indonesia, and the date and time that his credit card details were used was at a time when he could prove that he was using the same card in a restaurant in south London.

The police cleared him a few months later but unfortunately, the impacts remained. It turns out his financial information was leaked on a very large, well known internet shopping site which he is now taking legal action against. It took another six months before he got a job, earning a quarter of the salary he'd earned before his arrest. Simon reconciled with his family but is still rebuilding his reputation. The scary thing is this, it could quite literally happen to anyone who shops online, which let’s face it, is almost all of us.

I don't have a vpn?

If you don’t have a VPN you could hotspot using your smart phone (your internet data is channelled through your phone instead of someone else’s WiFi router). Most people have highly affordable data plans on their phones so tethering to your smartphone can be a viable alternative. For those who travel a lot, you can buy portable WiFi hotspot device cheaply and they are the size of a USB pen so are easy to carry around with you. Just bear in mind, you will churn through data much quicker than when your phone does as you’ll be loading full websites (not the smaller mobile versions).

The stand out recommendation from me is the D-Link DIR-510L portable WiFi router. It is a little spenny at £107, but it is the fastest portable router out there, the size of a small mobile phone, is secure (as long as you setup a strong network passphrase) and doubles up as a portable charging battery too! There are of course other cheaper options - if you do choose another, just ensure it supports something called IEEE 802.11ac as this will ensure your connection is lightning fast.

More than just security...

VPNs are more than just something to secure your online shopping when your away from home. You can use them for many other purposes, including;

  • Use search engines without every search being recorded by the companies running them. The likes of Google and Microsoft record every search you do so they can deliver customised advertising. This information can be handed on to other third parties (e.g. sold for advertising purposes or to the police if they request it) or lost in a data breach.
  • To bypass a country's web censorship. Some governments choose to impose oppressive internet censoring and surveillance on their citizens and then prosecute those who access what they deem as ‘wrong’. A VPN provides complete privacy away from prying eyes of our internet service providers or ‘big brother’ type governments. You also may be abroad and want to bypass the location-restricted controls many video or radio streaming websites have (e.g. to access BBC iPlayer or Netflix outside of the UK). If you use a VPN to mask your location as coming from the UK, access will be allowed!
  • Access certain web services at school, university or work. Some institutes have fairly draconian ‘Acceptable Use Policies’. Whilst I never advocate violating these policies, people have been known to use VPNs to tunnel out of these networks and access sites that would otherwise be banned (e.g. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc.). Equally, VPNs are used to secure into private networks, e.g. to enable remote working.
  • Prevent bank account or credit card lockouts. When you’re travelling abroad and haven’t notified your bank, they may detect when access to your account is attempted from abroad and subsequently freeze the account as a fraud prevention measure. Using a VPN can route your connection through your country of origin and thus help prevent these kinds of lock outs.

Which is the best VPN?

The best VPNs in my opinion are;

1. Bitdefender VPN

Very user-friendly designed with the beginner in mind and is affordable. If you follow my earlier recommendation to get the Bitdefender anti-virus software, you’ll get their VPN for free. What’s great about it is that it is so very simple. It has a single-click connect functionality which makes it easy as pie to use and also, it funnels all your internet traffic through the VPN rather than just the browser. This means anything you do on your entire device (web browsing, email, behind-the-scenes application data, etc.) is all routed through the VPN. It provides you with 200MB per day worth of internet traffic which is more than enough for most of us. If you do need unlimited data allowance or to specify the country you want to VPN through, then you can upgrade to premium for £19.99 per year which is still a bargain in my eyes!

2. TunnelBear

Also designed with the beginner in mind but a little pricier than BitDefender. Only real downside is that some users have reported for longer distance connections (e.g. Australia to UK) these can be slower than other VPNs. If you get the browser extension it’ll cover just the browser internet connection so make sure you get the desktop application version so that it covers all internet connectivity from the device as a whole. Costs £2.96 / month (£35 / year).

3. TOR (The Onion Router)

Originally designed for the US Navy to transfer top secret information, TOR is one of the most secure options and it’s free! Whilst some intelligence agencies (NSA and GCHQ) have extracted some information in specific scenarios, TOR is still considered to be impregnable if used correctly. So why isn’t it my first choice? It’s a little like wielding a hammer to crack a nut - it will be overkill for most of us. I prefer the user friendliness of Bitdefender but I’ve included TOR because some may have need for the added protection it provides.

Top Tip: some people have found some success in finding cheaper hotel room and flight deals by using private browsing or a VPN . This is because incognito mode and VPNs prevents websites using things called ‘cookies’ to track what we’re searching for on their website and stops them being able to see where high demand is and jacking the price up. Not all airlines or hotels use this tactic, but it may well be worth trying next time you need to book a flight/hotel.

Using a VPN, you can now peruse your emails and check your bank balances out and about, to your hearts content! I hope you found this useful. Please do comment below – always eager to hear your thoughts!

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