How often are you connecting to the Internet via a shared or public wifi network? Too often, if you’re not also paying close attention to your online security, because almost any data you send via an open wifi can be captured and analyzed by hackers or even spyware.
Enter the virtual private network, or VPN. It’s simple software that encrypts every data packet coming off your computer, using its intermediate servers to ensure you stay safe…
Some of the larger online sites, like Facebook and Google, have shifted over the last few years to secure connections via the secure socket layer “SSL” browser protocol — identified by “https://” rather than “http://” prefixes — but where most people get into trouble are all the other programs that are running on their systems, whether it’s an email program, an extension that monitors your Facebook page for updates from friends, or even a stock ticker or other utility that stays discretely in the background while you’re working. All of them are using the wifi connection, not just the program or Web site that’s front and center, and so every single one can be exposing your data to a variety of dangers.
The solution is to get up and running with a VPN, one that’s easy to install and can be turned on and off as desired. For example, when I’m working at my own office or in my home, I don’t bother with the VPN: I’m the only computer on my secure network, so I know that I’m about as safe as someone can be when they’re on the Internet. But I’m writing this while sitting at a café, sharing their wifi network with about a dozen other geeks. Are they all trustworthy? Might one of them have some malware that’s doing the traffic analysis without them even knowing, reporting back to a central service when information of interest is detected?
I’ve tried Hotspot Shield before on my computer and written about it. You can read that older piece here: Easy VPN with HotSpot Shield. What’s new in Hotspot Shield Elite is that it’s a complete rewrite of the client app, supports a wide variety of client devices, and is far faster, so fast that I rarely remember that it’s running, which is the ideal. It keeps me safe on these public wifi networks without me having to actually think about it. A definite win.
The way it works once installed is that whenever I connect to a wireless network, it automatically starts working, as indicated by the shield in the menu bar going from red to green. Click on it and a useful menu pops up:
Once you’re running, it is a new “pipe” through which all your Internet traffic funnels, and the app even shows stats:
The most important option, though, is on the menu: “Pause”. In a few instances, I found that there were quirks in my interaction, for example embedding large images into email I was composing in Gmail with the secure browser page. I paused protection, uploaded the image, re-enabled protection (or forgot and had the VPN automatically turn on again) and continued working, no worries.
As mentioned earlier, Hotspot Shield Elite is across a lot of different platforms, not just Mac, and the “Elite” version gives you five device protection:
Quite impressive, actually, and five devices is enough for your desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone, with a spare for your brother or mom.
Performance has significantly improved since last time I looked at this product too. Last time it was “tolerable but you were aware it was running” and now it’s “barely noticeable, if at all”. It’s impossible to make it completely invisible by the nature of how a VPN works, but this is pretty close. You really can just leave it running all the time and just forget about it unless there’s some quirky behavior (like failure to upload large images into email messages you’re composing).
If you’d like to try Hotspot Shield out without paying the modest fee for an annual license (for five devices, remember) of $29.99 then there’s a free version too, though that slaps a banner advert atop the Web pages you visit, similar to how free wifi works at airports. Here’s an example:
Not horrible and there’s always an “x” button so you can close the layer, but obviously the small upgrade charge is well worth it if you’re going to use this with any frequency. Oh, and those airport wifi connections? Yeah, probably one of the most dangerous open wifi networks you can use without traveling overseas…
In the modern world you can just blithely use wifi networks and never think about data security, I suppose, but eventually it’ll come back and bite you. There’s just too much going on in the world of hackers, crackers and malware authors, and with the presence of free-to-download wifi data sniffers and analyzers, odds are someone has monitored your wireless traffic already in the last few weeks. Ignore it? Or accept an occasional hiccup and slight performance hit (and it’s barely noticeable in my experience) to know that your private communications are indeed private and safe. I suggest the latter. And suggest you check out Hotspot Shield Elite. $29.99/annual, $4.99/month, or free with ads. Please use this (affiliate) link: Hotspot Shield Elite for Mac or, if you’re looking for a different platform: Hotspot Elite for Windows, iOS, or Android.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary license to Hotspot Shield Elite and a small compensation for reviewing this product. I am also using an affiliate link so that while you’ll pay the same price for the software if you purchase it, I get a modest commission to help keep the lights on here at AskDaveTaylor.com central. Thanks.