By Reid Goldsborough
you're traveling or otherwise away from your home or office and
carrying a laptop or tablet computer, you should take the same care with
your data as you do with your wallet and other valuables. Some of the
same protections you take while stationary apply to traveling. But some
additional protections are worth their effort. The most commonly
recommended traveling protection is to use a virtual private network
A public VPN creates a private network within the
larger public internet, as if you were connecting through a fiber or
coaxial cable that linked only your machine and the machine you're
connecting to. The main benefit is increased security, and it
accomplishes this through dedicated servers and encryption.
you send email or view a website through a public VPN, that data travels
through a server computer of the VPN company you're using. Thus, it
seems to others as if it's coming from that computer, not yours. Through
VPN software installed on your computer as well as the server computer,
the data also is encrypted, so if it's intercepted it's impossible to
VPNs are useful because the free or low-cost Wi-Fi provided
by many hotels, airports, libraries, bookstores, and coffee shops
typically doesn't provide a secure connection. A secure connection
requires you to type in a security key or password provided to you by
the facility. The best Wi-Fi security today is WPA2, with the earlier
WPA a step behind. WEP is even less secure. And many facilities
providing free Wi-Fi provide only unsecured connections, with no
With your own internet connection and unsecured
Wi-Fi, neighbors or passing drivers could log on to your network and
use your internet connection, which at the least could slow you down.
the internet connection at a coffee shop or airport and unsecured
Wi-Fi, other users of the particular Wi-Fi network could intercept and
read your data, with the right software. Such software is called packet
analyzers or "sniffers." It serves the legitimate purpose of allowing
companies to analyze their network traffic to best use its bandwidth or
to monitor intrusion attempts. But a bad guy sitting two seats down from
you at the coffee shop can use that same software.
Three highly recommended VPN services, getting good reviews in the computer press and anecdotally from fellow users, are:
some such VPN software, a free, limited version exists. But when you're
protecting yourself in this way, it probably makes sense to spring for
the beefed-up pay version. You simply download and install the software
before you use a public Wi-Fi hotspot. You can keep the software running
all the time, or you can disable it temporarily when you're back to
using a secure business or home connection. Other benefits of VPNs are
anonymous browsing and access to content in foreign countries that might
be restricted to U.S. users. In some cases, with VPN vendors that have
lots of servers, your internet speeds might increase. In other cases,
speeds can slow down slightly or remain about the same.
VPN can cause problems in connecting with websites or retrieving email.
In such cases, all that's typically needed is temporarily disabling the
VPN software and immediately turning it back on again. Other times,
when you've paid for the full, fast version of a VPN service, it might
mistakenly indicate you're using the limited, slow, free version. If
this happens, try logging on to the VPN vendor's website, logging off,
and logging back on again.
Even with a VPN service, it's important
to use good passwords. Don't reuse the same passwords. Long passphrases
are more effective than short words.