With internet hotspots popping up everywhere, it is getting more and more important to be careful about what you do over wireless internet. Connecting to networks which are not secured via WPA or WEP encrpytion makes it easy for hackers to intercept your data packets, and steal sensitive information such as passwords or whatever else you enter. This usually isn't a problem at home, where you can encrypt your own connection, but it is becoming a problem because many hotels now only provide wireless internet. So how do you connect to the internet in this scenario while staying safe from hackers? Simple! Use a VPN!
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and is similar to a Local Area Network that you may find at your house. When two or more computers join a VPN, they can then perform tasks such as printer and document sharing even if both computers are located thousands of miles apart.
How can a VPN help me surf securely?
A personal VPN works using a network between your laptop and a secure server connected to the internet. When you connect to your VPN, it opens a secure encrypted tunnel between your computer and the server, through which data can flow without being intercepted. When the data reaches your server, it is unencrypted and sent on its way.
Setting up a VPN
Previously to have a personal VPN you must either have a spare server lying around and a lot of technical knowledge, or be willing to dish out $40+/year to use a commercial VPN.
AnchorFree have released HotSpot Shield, a free personal VPN that you can use for free, without a server, and with very little technical knowledge.
Price: Free, but th catch is that it displays a banner ad on the top of every page you view. Annoying, but bearable if you need to check your email over an unsecured hotspot.
Speed: A big factor to consider when setting up or choosing a VPN is speed. You will almost always experience slower internet when connected to a VPN, but how much slower depends on distance to the server, the server's internet connection, and the load on their connection. I didn't expect much from Hotspot Shield, because I knew that because they were free, they likely had few servers and those servers had a huge load on them. However I was pleasantly surprised to find the speed was more than bearable.
Speed without Hotspot Shield:
Ping: 42 ms
Download Speed: 1423 kbps
Upload Speed: 943 kbps
Speed with Hotspot Shield:
Ping: 142 ms
Download Speed: 823 kbps
Upload Speed: 373 kbps
The internet was about half as fast when connected, which is not bad at all for free vpn software.
Features: Unlike commerical VPN software,
Hotspot Shield does not come with any extra goodies such as WiFi locators or fancy system tray menus. Hotspot Shield includes On and Off, and that is pretty much it.