It’s a problem that few people talk about, but it’s real: when you’re using a wireless network, most of your data is traveling through the air “in the clear” (that is, unencrypted) and anyone with the right software could easily be tapping into the data stream and stealing your information, email messages, passwords, credit card numbers, and anything else you might be sending, viewing or receiving. Sure some sites now offer a secure connection, but there are a lot more sites that don’t, leaving it your responsibility to ensure that your information is safe.
There are a number of ways to solve this problem, some expensive (your own personal encrypted mifi hotspot) and others complicated (only connect online through your own private network), but there’s also a slick solution that automatically encrypts every single byte of data you send or receive by creating what’s called a virtual private network or “VPN”. Put one of these in place and dubious hackers and stalkers will always be stymied trying to “sniff” your data packets and all your information will be safe. Smart.
Problem is, getting a VPN set up can be complex. Enter Hotspot Shield by AnchorFree, Inc. Even better, you can either opt to use it for free — in return for a small advert popping up — or for a small fee you can subscribe to the service.
Let’s have a look.
People are often surprised that the entire Ask Dave Taylor operation runs without us having a formal suite of offices. Instead, we typically camp out at a favorite local café and imbibe lots of caffeine while tapping into a convenient free, open wifi network. Works great and lowers our overhead, but there’s a problem: everywhere we work there are a dozen or more other computer geeks busily typing away on their laptops. What are they really? doing?
It’s worrying, particularly if we’re working on confidential corporate documents or private communications with clients or partner companies. If we wanted it to be public, after all, we’d be posting it on Facebook and Google Plus.
When AnchorFree asked if we’d be interested at trying their easy VPN utility, Hotspot Shield, we were quick to assent: it’s a problem we know is important, we just haven’t paid attention to it.
Easy to download and install, you can get their client app for either Mac or Windows. There are two versions: Hotspot Shield, which includes a pop-up advert that you might or might not find annoying (I’ll show you the ad in a second) or Hotspot Shield Elite, which removes the ad but has a fee associated with it. In both cases, the app includes the ability to block know malware sites, but in addition to removing the advertisement, the Elite version also blocks phishing sites and a faster backend server network (VPN requires software on both your computer and a server somewhere on the Internet, and encrypts the data between the two).
Grab the Mac version and you’ll find from the get-go that it’s a professional, well designed package:
Simply double-click on the installer icon and it’ll jump into action, no computer restart required. There’s only one prompt:
It’s confusing, but this isn’t asking “do you want to create a VPN connection immediately upon starting up your computer?” but simply whether you want the utility itself to load when you boot up each time. My suggestion: yes, you do. Click “Yes” and you’re done.
Now there’s a tiny new icon on your menubar, a little shield with a crescent moon. If you are running Hotspot Shield, it’s green. If you aren’t, it’s red. Click on it:
To switch your existing connection to be secure, choose “Connect”. It takes a few seconds to establish a connection with the remote server, but after just a moment it’ll turn green and you can now proceed without any performance penalty or other ill effect. It’s just safe and secure. Easy!
Check how much data you’ve uploaded and downloaded at any time by clicking on “Status”. Here’s what I was shown after a few minutes of use:
This is important because one of the ways you can opt to pay for the Elite version is based on the amount of data you’re going to use on the “pipe”. If that’s of interest, I suggest you run the free version for a day and use the status information to gauge your daily bandwidth usage. Good data to know when comparing pay-as-you-go with their flat subscription fee model. Or, of course, you can stick with the free version and sidestep the issue. As long as you can deal with a banner ad automatically being inserted on the top of every Web page:
If you’ve used wifi at an airport, you’ve probably seen these sort of persistent ads before. If it’s no big deal, you’re good to go and now have a nice new tool for when you really want to ensure that your data communication is safe.
Wait a second! Aren’t there free VPN services like OpenVPN you could use instead?
Ah, if only. There’s no free lunch: companies have to pay for the backend server and data communication charges that are incurred, so while OpenVPN certainly seems to be a good free alternative, it turns out that if you aren’t going to also run your own OpenVPN server (for which there’s a license fee, as well as your hardware costs for a server computer) you’re handed off to a service called Private Tunnel, which charges by bandwidth usage.
Hotspot Shield being free, therefore, is actually a pretty darn good deal.
If you do want to subscribe to the Elite utility to speed up your connection and axe the ad, there are two ways you can pay: either pay as you go “day passes” for $0.50/day (minimum of 20 days per transaction) or you can subscribe for $4.99/mo or $29.95/annual for a whole year. Do the math, at $0.50/day that’s $182/yr, or $4.99/mo works out to just under $60. So $29.95 for a year? That’s a quite inexpensive $0.08/daily.
Digging around online, many people warn that the biggest disadvantage of running a VPN is that it has a significant performance penalty. Everything slows down. Except in my testing, I never experienced any noticeable lag or performance problem, though I did bump into a situation on the Aweber email server where a feature didn’t work until I temporarily disabled the VPN. WIth it being a menu from the menu bar, however, that was easy to disable then reenable.
The price is quite manageable and the benefit of having secure data communications when on a public wifi network is a huge boon. Like many aspects of security, you’ll realize just how much you needed it just after an incident where you lose precious data, experience identity theft or even become a victim of industrial espionage. No brainer. Just get it.