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Is a VPN an Essential Tool?

A VPN is a Virtual Private Network, essentially a tunnel like a proxy between two distinct points which is normally encrypted to each end device.  It’s a technology that has been around for decades, however for most of that time unless you worked in the IT department you’d not normally hear the expression.  As the internet developed and companies started to utilise the net to allow employees to access their corporate network while travelling they began to become more common.  Nowadays anyone who travels and works for a reasonable sized company will have a VPN client on their computer,  it’s a safe and secure way to tunnel through the very insecure internet to access documents and emails without the need for dedicated links.

Over the years, the definition of VPN has changed slightly but now the internet version is pretty much mainstream.  Everyone from gamers, ex-pats to people who travel all use VPNs for a variety of different reasons.

The first and important characteristic of a VPN is that the connection between the two devices is secure and encrypted.  This means that although you might be trying to check your online bank account via a dodgy, free wireless connection in a coffee shop – all your data is protected.  The VPN will encrypt all data being transferred including your username, password and all other details. This is really essential as the limitations and vulnerabilities of the only real protection you have online – SSL have been demonstrated many times online, basically that little key that we used to think delivers protection simply doesn’t.

Although security was the primary purpose for the creation of VPN technology, arguably there is a much greater demand for another reason – geo-blocking.  Most of the world’s biggest websites filter what you can see depending on your physical location.  For example when you connect to the BBC, there are two versions of the site – a UK version and an International version. The UK version has live tv and you get access to all the BBC iPlayer content, the international version has none of these and is also covered in adverts.  Using a VPN which terminates in the UK, can bypass these blocks and give access to the full version. If you have a fast VPN enabled it’s a pretty seamless experience.

What is more as demand has increased a second generation of VPN clients have been created to service these requirements. Now a generation of software which gives access not just to a single, secure VPN server but a network distributed across the world. These clients mean that a user can unlock content in websites all over the world, using a VPN for Computer which can be switched from country to country. So a user picks a UK server for the BBC, then switched to a US server for sites like HBO and Hulu – potentially bypassing thousands of filters and blocks to the world’s most popular media sites.

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Netflix Latest Addition to the BT YouView Box

Not sure about you, but my house is becoming swamped by devices that span a technological ice age. It was only a few weeks ago, that I finally persuaded my hoarder of a wife that we actually had little use for a VCR any more. It wasn’t easy, she still maintained that the fact we had several video tapes meant we needed to keep the VCR just in case. The fact that nobody had turned the thing on for over three years seemed irrelevant.

My masterstroke was to pick up copies of the aforementioned cassettes on DVD and then she finally relented – one more useless metal box consigned to the trash! My very next target is ironically the DVD player which also gets very little use, the occasional fitness DVD but not much else.

YouView

The reality is that the majority of our media is better stored on hard disks on devices at home or better still remotely. Most of us now have internet speeds capable of downloading and streaming media as we watch, so it makes sense to simply select and play rather than fill up our homes with disks of some format. There are still complications of course, media streaming is available on lots of devices but many have their drawbacks. My Sky box only worked for Sky, I used a Roku to access Netflix and the UK on demand services and a YouView box from BT to access my internet TV channels.

Lots of these devices could do other things, but none was capable of being the complete solution to my media streaming needs. The main annoyance of the YouView box was that it had most services except my favorite one – Netflix. Thankfully this has now changed from November 2014, most of the BT YouView boxes now can stream Netflix directly to your TV. This has meant I can now move one step closer to removing another media streamer from my lounge and watch BBC News Live on a streaming service.

There are still issues, the main one now is that I use different versions of Netflix quite frequently. The US version is far superior so I use this technique – How to Change Netflix to US Version, to access the American site. However I also watch some shows which are only on the UK version so need either to switch around often (which is a pain) or have something else linked to the UK version of Netflix. In my case luckily our games console (WII U Plus) is capable of streaming Netflix as well albeit by using a wireless connection.

It’s now becoming a matter of application and network connectivity rather than which physical media is supported. Smart TVs aren’t quite there in my experience and so other devices like the Roku and Chromecast are filling the gap. Inevitably you need to use software or workarounds to change your IP address, such as demonstrated here – http://www.changeipaddress.net/ although I’m hoping these stupid restrictions will change soon.

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We Still prefer to Watch on TV

There has been a drive over the last few years, to get people to use their phones, tablets and other devices to watch TV and films. So it’s an interesting that a survey conducted in the UK recently has found that the traditional TV is still by far the most popular medium for viewing today.

In fact less than 2% of total viewing in 2013 was conducted using mobile devices and platforms. Hardly anyone in the survey regularly watched much TV using their phone which perhaps may come as a big surprise to many phone manufacturers. It’s no surprise to me though, perhaps it’s my aging eyes but the idea of spending any time watching something on a phone or even a tablet does not appeal at all.

The survey didn’t just cover standard TV either, it also included catch up TV services like BBC Iplayer, ITV player, Sky GO and other stations. So it becomes clearer that although manufacturers are driving us towards watching services on other devices nothing else really comes close to the traditional TV screen

One are that may skew the findings is if the survey was extended internationally. One of the reasons is that much of this content is accessible online but there is a problem. All the UK stations for instance are not accessible outside the UK even using the internet. They all check your IP address when you connect and block viewing from other countries, the same happens everywhere else – all the major US media channels are not accessible outside the USA. But thousands of people circumvent these restrictions by using proxies and VPNs to watch whatever they want – this video demonstrates.

This method is not difficult to set up using a computer, laptop or other media device but even on Smart TVs it can be difficult. The problem is that many manufacturers don’t allow much access to the network configuration settings on their devices presumably because it makes support easier or perhaps under pressure from the broadcasters.

 

Further Reading

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Speed – Choose a Turbo Charged VPN

I’ve been using a variety of VPNs and VPN client software for about 20 years now. In corporate land, the VPN has become ubiquitous with the rise of the internet and the portable device. In some companies you’ll find several VPN clients required for accessing corporate resources like document stores and email. I once worked for a company who had grown quickly by buying out a number of competitors quickly, some of the CEOs had five or six VPN connections (using different client software) in order to dial in to these respective companies. Merging technology and disparate networks is not an easy thing to achieve with any great speed.

The problem was that a VPN effectively takes over all your network connections, so it can cause lots of problems if loaded/unloaded from memory. Also whilst the VPN is active all the traffic will be routed down the connection unless the client software allows otherwise. So if I have a VPN connection active to a server in Australia and I try to connect to a European web site, my request is going to take a very long route, add your latency from the server and perhaps encryption and you have a distinct drop in speed.

Which is why one of the most important things to consider in using VPNs is speed. A fast VPN server is a joy to use with an almost negligible impact on your connection, however the opposite is true of a slow or badly configured VPN client or server. Here’s useful video which shows a demonstration of assessing a fast VPN connection – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4v-4LoG6Vg .

What you need to do is to check your internet connection speed normally and when routed through the VPN of your choice. There will be some level of degradation in speed of course, due to the extra hop your traffic will take and the encryption layer but realistically it shouldn’t be too high. If looking for a public service then the location of the VPN servers is of crucial importance, the very best ones will allow you access to servers distributed across the world. Remember however if you are using a VPN server to access geo-locked content then you won’t be able to choose the location you connect through.

That is if you’re trying to access the BBC or a UK TV station abroad like this method, then you’ll have to choose a VPN server in that specific country. Therefore a UK server for British services, a US VPN server for US based sites and so on. However in this case the overall speed of the VPN server becomes even more crucial especially if you’re connecting from a remote location. IF you are using the service to stream video like from BBC iPLayer it’s a useful option to be able to turn off the encryption layer which some client software will allow. If you’re not accessing sites using personal details and merely streaming media then encryption is not strictly necessary but remember to turn it back on before you check your webmail account or do home banking from a coffee shop!

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Choosing a Suitable UK Proxy Service

For many people, privacy and security are becoming one of the primary concerns of being online.  It’s not surprising really, over the years the internet has become more and more important to people’s daily lives.  We pay most of our bills, browse for insurance, research holidays and do our online banking.  Lots of people even pay and submit their taxes online too particularly in many European countries.   However despite how the role of the internet has changed, the fundamental security underlying the internet has not changed at all.

The problem was that HTTP – Hyper Transfer Transport Protocol, was never really designed with security in mind.  Everything is transferred in clear text and ultimately traffic can be intercepted and read by anyone who makes the effort.  HTPPS makes think a little better, however it is little more than a security add on to an unsecure protocol.  It does add a level of encryption but it’s often badly implemented and open to various attacks.  There have been increasing problems with relying on SSL (Secure socket Layer) particularly as it’s especially simple to break via client side attacks.  The company Lenovo actually installed malware called superfish on it’s laptops by default which could intercept SSL transmissions and insert it’s own adverts, it’s that easy to break if you can access the client.

So what have people been doing?  Well one of the options is to use a proxy service, however this again is fraught with difficulties.  Using an insecure proxy for example is much worse for  your privacy than not using one at all, and trying to use a free service will inevitably leave your data exposed to others.   There are good implementations from companies who specialise in secure technology, this for example is from a company called Identity Cloaker who supply a UK proxy service to many thousands of people.

The key here is that the servers are secure, configured correctly and supported 24/7. Also it is is imperative that the proxies don’t keep extensive logs of connections and transactions, if they do – you are simply creating another source of personal details which can potentially be exploited.

The reasons that free proxies are so dangerous is simply because of their very nature. The vast majority of free proxies are simply servers that have been accidentally left open. For example they may be an application servers used by a college or company to perform some function, with an installation of IIS accidentally left on the server. The administrators will probably have no idea that the server is capable of operating as a proxy service and that people are using it. This obviously means that as you are using a server without the owners permission, you can be assured that others are using them as well and it is often a simple task to steal the data being transported via this server and remember SSL is not a defence in many situations.

Another popular use of these proxies is to access content that is not normally available from a specific location. You can actually use proxies to bypass these blocks to change computer ip address by hiding your real location behind the proxy server. It’s often used for example to watch the BBC iPlayer from outside the UK, or stream videos from Hulu to non-US residents.

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Upgrading your VPN Security

Many people use both proxies and VPNs for security reasons, in fact you’re unlikely to be able to connect to most corporate networks remotely without using one.  However for those who are really concerned with security and privacy there is one small drawback about using a commercial proxy or VPN – the fact that you need to redirect your connection through a single point.

Think about it, without using a VPN then there’s only one common point and that’s through your ISPs gateway, and although a VPN will prevent them keeping detailed log – you are still introducing another bottleneck.   A configured proxy or VPN can add to security but it also introduces a single location for your records.

Although if you use something like Identity Cloaker, they delete all logs anyway, for some this is slightly disconcerting.  Fortunately Identity Cloaker and a couple of the other VPN companies have a system to allow you to rectify this – here’s the details in this video – Is VPN safe.

What the system does is to automatically switch your connection between random servers every few minutes. So you could browse through a huge number of different servers automatically, basically relaying your internet connection through different countries on autopilot.

The implications are :

  • Makes it less visible that you are using a remote proxy/vpn, simply because all your traffic won’t be being routed through a single IP address.
  • Reduces the risk of data or activity being logged on a single server.
  • Increases the security of your internet connection substantially.

The downsides are obviously the interruptions in your connection as one VPN connection is disconnected and another established which is obviously something you must consider.  IN mitigation of these delays you could restrict the switching between fast servers near to you or servers in a specific country.