YourABA December 2011 Masthead

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Public Wi-Fi and the cost of "free"

It's said that "free" often comes with a cost, and in the case of free public Wi-Fi, the cost may be your privacy. Imagine you're connected to the free Wi-Fi at your local coffee shop or at your hotel while on vacation, and you log into your favorite social network or web-based email account. Using simple and widely available tools, other users on that network may be able to "sniff" out the username and password you used to log in.  They can then use those credentials to hijack your accounts and access your sensitive files.  For lawyers handling confidential documents or communications, that scenario raises both privacy and professional responsibility concerns.

To avoid falling victim to this kind of Wi-Fi snooping, it's best to send sensitive information only if it’s encrypted. When working on the web, one sign of an encrypted connection is an "https" rather than the standard "http" at the beginning of the web address (the “s” is for secure). In most browsers, you'll also notice a closed lock icon somewhere on the screen when your connection is secure. Some websites, however, only use encryption on the sign-in page and not on other pages, meaning there's still a risk that your data will be intercepted.

Virtual private networks offer a more secure alternative. Virtual private networking creates a secure tunnel in which your information travels from one point to another with encryption scrambling the information during transit. For lawyers working at firms with IT support in-house, chances are good they already have VPN technology available.  For those without such support, subscription VPN is a good option.  Subscription VPN is hosted by a third party and allows lawyers to pay for access as they need it (i.e., daily, weekly, monthly, etc.). Such services are generally easy to set up, affordable and require minimal technology skills.

When considering subscription VPN, you have two choices: PPTP or SSL.  If you're using a smartphone or tablet device, then PPTP VPN is your only option.  If you're using a desktop or laptop computer, you can use either PPTP or SSL VPN.  SSL VPN may be your only option if you're travelling internationally, as PPTP VPN is often limited or blocked. Regardless of your choice, setup can often be completed in just 15 minutes.

While there are many excellent free and paid third-party VPNs, two established providers are HotSpotVPN and WiTopia:

HotSpotVPN

Established in 2002, HotSpotVPN supports multiple levels of encryption and most major operating systems, including Windows 7 and Mac OS X. HotSpotVPN also supports iPads, iPhones, Android phones, most Symbian-based Nokias, Windows Mobile and PocketPC, and Nokia Internet Tablets.  Technical support options include FAQs, a knowledge base, and brief illustrative videos for each service offering and operating system. Email support is available, but turnaround may be longer than 24 hours on the weekend.  HotSpotVPN offers two VPN services referred to as HotSpotVPN-1 or HotSpotVPN-2.
  • HotSpotVPN-1 is the PPTP VPN offering and uses 128-bit encryption. HotSpotVPN-1 is $8.88 per month. You can also purchase HotSpotVPN1 for a day ($3.88), three days ($5.88) or a week ($6.88).
  • HotSpotVPN-2 is the SSL VPN offering, available at $10.88 per month for 128 bit encryption, $11.88 for AES-192 (192 bits) and $13.88 for AES-256 (256 bits). Each SSL VPN includes a complimentary PPTP HotSpotVPN-1 account for your handheld device.

WiTopia

WiTopia was founded in early 2003.  WiTopia supports VoIP as well as the iPad, iPhone, and IPod Touch, Mac OS X, Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Android devices, Windows Mobile and Symbian OS. The software can be installed on multiple machines, but only one machine can be used at a time.  For multiple computers, users will need to purchase multiple accounts or use WiTopia’s CloakBox VPN router.  WiTopia doesn’t offer a free trial period but has a 30-day money-back guarantee.  Technical support consists of FAQs, email, a support wiki, and 24x7x365 live chat.  WiTopia offers two VPN options: personalVPN – PPTP (for the Mac or PC) and personalVPN – SSL.
  • personalVPN – PPTP ($39.99 annually) provides 128-bit encryption.
  • personalVPN – SSL (openVPN) is $59.99 annually and provides 256-bit encryption options. If you have both laptops and mobile devices, you will need to order the SSL/PPTP (personalVPN Pro) bundled package for $69.99.

An earlier version of this article, Secure Surfing with Subscription VPN appeared in the March 2011 edition of GPSolo eReport, the monthly e-newsletter of the ABA General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

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