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Virtually Private

With the disclosure of widespread spying on telephone calls and Internet connections in the U.S. and Europe (and I am sure that the rest of world isn’t far behind, although nobody talks about that), reality has far surpassed my long-held paranoia about e-mail and file security. So much has the issue of data protection moved into the public consciousness, that even the German Spiegel Online has published a guide on how to use public hotspots securely.

Not that the built-in insecurity of public WiFi connections is anything new. Over the past year I have spent long stretches of time outside the U.S. and have worked, e-mailed, and banked over public hotspots. In order to do this securely, my best friend has been a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. VPNs encrypt the connection between computer and a secure server – in both directions. If you work for a big organization, you may be able to use their VPN for secure connections. If you are on your own, like me, you need to buy or subscribe to a VPN service.

There are many such services available. Some are cheaper, some more expensive; some are easy to install and use, others present higher hurdles. I would look for easy installation, a sufficient number of secure servers in all the countries you plan to use the service in, and a clearly visible indicator of whether the service is active or inactive. With that in mind, I decided to subscribe to Astrill. Your requirements may suggest another service.

All VPN services require that you switch them on before they protect you, and all services carry a speed penalty. But VPNs are, at the moment, the best way to make it difficult for unauthorized parties to access your information on its way over the Internet. And there’s an added bonus. Quite often, Internet content is only available in certain areas. Try and access it from outside, and you get the message that the video, page, or music is not available in the region your connecting from. If you connect through a VPN server located in a region where the content is not restricted, you have unhindered access.

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