In the last few weeks there has been a huge brouhaha in the cruising community about the dangers of using open WiFi hotspots, and rightly so. This has never been a particularly safe practice, but the release of Firesheep—a plug in for the Firefox browser that allows literally any idiot, no matter how technically inept, to hijack other people’s internet sessions—has upped the risk of using unsecured WiFi dramatically.
The release of FireSheep also jarred me out of my complacency—with my technical background I have long known that we were taking a risk but, like most people, I had not got around to doing anything about it—and sent me on a search for a secure solution that would allow us to foil internet eavesdroppers while continue to use open access WiFi hotspots. Turns out that there is a reasonably simple solution.
It’s called virtual private network (VPN), which consists of two parts: A piece of software on your computer that encodes all of your internet data as it leaves your computer as well as decoding incoming data; and a server that receives your encoded data, decodes it, and sends it on to the intended recipient as well as encoding data intended for you.
The result is that the nasty little 14 year old electronic vandal using Firesheep, or even the sophisticated hacker, sees nothing but unintelligible gobbeldygook when he or she listens in on your WiFi data. I’m no computer security expert, but this is industrial strength proven technology that is, as I understand it, pretty bomb proof.
Which VPN Is Best?
My answer to which VPN is best? Beats the heck out of me. Jeff Siegel over at Active Captain (a far more tech savvy guy than I am) has identified nearly one hundred different VPN vendors and is in the process of performing an exhaustive evaluation of them. If you join Active Captain (it’s free) you can keep up with Jeff’s efforts.
However, we could not wait. So I did what I usually do when picking software: Did a Google search, looked at the web sites of the top listed half dozen vendors, and selected the vendor who had a site with a tone I liked. Total time, one hour.
Sounds pretty hit or miss I know, but on the other hand I ran a company for many years where our success depended to a large extent on the software companies that I picked to partner with, so based on that experience I don’t pick really bad software often.
And The Winner Is
Not For the Technically Faint of Heart
Setting up was relatively straight forward once I figured out how to get the VPN and our firewall software to play nice together. Having said that, getting our relatively complex system, comprising three computers behind a Wifi enabled hub, all secure took me a couple of hours and three sessions with WiTopia support. And I have at least some basic understanding of how this stuff works. A single computer connecting to WiFi should be simpler, but be prepared for some messing around.
Who You Gonna Call?
Not WiTopia. They have no phone support. However, their internet chat support works well and immediately connects you 24/7 to a knowledgeable technician.
And not me. Please do not ask us questions about the set up of WiTopia’s VPN, or any other VPN, in the comments or directly by email. I left the computer support business years ago to go sailing and I’m not going back!
Be warned that there are several ways that you can screw up the setup or even start-up of WiTopia’s VPN in such a way that it will appear to you that you are secure when you are not. Therefore it is important that you test what your IP address is at the beginning of every session before doing anything confidential. WiTopia`s instructions tell you how to perform this simple task.
We have now been using the WiTopia VPN for a week and are happy with it. It is a great relief to know that our internet traffic is secure, no matter where we are or how we are transmitting it.
By the way, a VPN is a good idea for anyone who uses unsecured WiFi hot spots, not just cruisers. Also, you are not safe without a VPN just because the hot spot asks for a password. That is unless the password is WPA compliant, which is unusual on public hot spots.
If you have found a different or better solution for WiFi security, please leave a comment.
We paid the same price as anyone else for our three copies of WiTopia’s VPN and we will not receive any compensation if you buy their products.