Whether it’s a business trip or a backpacking adventure, the last thing you want to worry about is the security of your internet connection. Turns out, that gateway to the glorious world wide web may not be as safe as you thought.
(Where the internet sees you are from…)
What is a VPN?
A VPN (virtual private network) is like your own secure, private tunnel to the internet. That means that all of the information you send and receive over the internet is scrambled and encrypted before it heads along the information superhighway, keeping it safe from prying eyes. As an added benefit, many VPN providers have servers all over the world that you can connect to, which we’ll get to below.
Here are 5 reasons you should be using a VPN when you travel.
Prevent Online Banking Lockouts
When you travel abroad, most of us know that it’s a good practice to call your credit card company beforehand and let them know. That way, when you pay for your hotel on the beaches of Brazil, they don’t freak out and block your card thinking it may have been stolen.
When you log into your bank online, they already know where you are by your IP address. If it happens to be that you’re somewhere new, you might be flagged, and may be asked some security questions to verify that your account hasn’t been hijacked. At worst though, you might be locked out, requiring a phone call to the bank and some hoops to jump through before regaining access to your money.
Paypal has its share of horror stories. Travel to a new country (without their special security key), log in, account frozen. Fight with Paypal. Rinse, Repeat. Unlike your bank at home, Paypal isn’t a phone call away, and has been known to keep thousands of dollars locked away until it sees fit.
With a VPN, you can connect to any number of servers and countries around the world, and the site you are visiting will see you from there. For example, you can be traveling inside Burma (where banking sanctions are still in place) and be denied access to your account by your bank. If you connect your VPN through your home country instead, they see you as being in there and not Burma, and it’s smooth sailing.
Surf Securely Over Open Wifi
Free wifi is everywhere, from hotels to airports to little cafes. However, free & open wifi often comes with a hidden cost: your security and privacy. More specifically, if there is no password to access the wireless network, only WEP encryption, or a login/password combination required that you often see at hotels and airports on their hotspots, you are especially at risk.
Your data can often be snooped at these unsecured hotspots, and the information you send and receive is ripe for the taking. This could be e-mail you send and receive, websites you visit, files you send, and even passwords you log in with.
A VPN encrypts your data, keeping it safe and away from prying eyes. If someone were to snoop it, it would just be a bunch of gibberish. It’s an easy way to stay safe on suspected networks.
Access Media Across Borders
If you’re a media junkie, especially with TV, you’ll often find your access blocked when you’re outside your country. Complicated rights agreements mean that someone else might own the rights to broadcast in the country you are in, so they can’t show it to you while you are there. This is yet another way that the consumer gets screwed online.
A few examples of this are Hulu, which is available in the USA (and Japan) only, popular music service Spotify, and many country-specific TV networks (for me, I often use CBC.ca, svtPlay.se, and Showcase.ca) . If you try to connect outside of where they are available, you’ll often find yourself faced with an error.
Instead of buying a plane ticket back, connect with your VPN to another country. For example, if there is something I want to watch on Hulu or Comedy Central, I connect to a server in the USA. Since I have a Spotify account from Sweden, I connect through a server in Scandinavia for access. Finally, if I want to watch documentaries from the CBC in Canada, I connect through there and I’m set.
Some governments around the world are doing their best to dictate what their citizens should and shouldn’t see on the internet. The most famous among the group is China and the “Great Firewall of China.” Blogs and bloggers can disappear right off the map. “News” is only what it allowed to be shown to the public.
I ran into this problem during my recent trip to Burma. Searching for something a little too political would often bring to a screen saying that access was being denied by the ISP. Some countries are worse offenders than others, with countries in Asia & the Middle East being the worst offenders. Even Australia is battling with an internet filter.
We wrote a few months ago about the SOPA and PIPA bills that were up for vote in the USA, and Canada has tabled its version for a future vote as well. Nowhere is immune, it seems.
Fortunately, a VPN will let you access the internet from another server in another country, bypassing any censorship that the country you are currently in. It was the only way to check CNN.com from inside Burma when I was traveling there during the election in April.
Access Restricted Websites & Services
Prominent websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and even entire networks of Google’s services may be blocked in a country you visit. Not only that, but Skype and other VOIP services are blocked in many countries by telecom providers afraid of losing revenue, or governments who wish to monitor calls.
P2P (or peer-to-peer) traffic is also being cut, often times at the more local level. This technology is now most famous for BitTorrent, but started with the likes of Napster and Kazaa. Though those are often associated with pirated music and movies, P2P is used by a host of legitimate technologies these days.
The apartment building I’m living in has begun blocking P2P traffic, preventing me from using a new file sharing feature app for Facebook called “Pipe”
Once again, VPN to the rescue. By encrypting the internet traffic, the local blocks on my P2P traffic no longer work and I can access the internet like I would without them in my way. I can also review Pipe for you in an upcoming post!
So where do I get a VPN?
Although there are some free alternatives out there, they are often slow, and wrought with performance issues. I recommend Witopia Personal VPN which I’ve used in 20+ countries over the last 2+ years. This service will set you back about $5.99 / month or $49.99 / year. Tunnelbear is also a good option — super-easy to set up, and with a free 500MB/month to get you started.
Either way, it’s a small price to pay for piece of mind, and access to all that is the internet when I’m traveling.
Do you use a VPN when you travel?
Image via Anne Worner