November 01, 2015

Road Warrior: Staying Connected Safely

Jeffrey Allen

Traveling for business or pleasure generally means making arrangements to stay connected to the office, to friends, and to family. In the old days, we would use a hotel phone or a pay phone and a phone card, and, like E.T., we would phone home. Travelers today more likely will use their cell phone and, if traveling internationally, an international calling plan, or they may try to save some money by getting an unlocked phone and a SIM card for whatever country in which they happen to find themselves.

One of the things that those who have traveled internationally have likely learned is that using the data transfer capabilities of their devices burns through a substantial amount of available bandwidth on their (usually very limited) international data plans. These plans tend to be very expensive. If you plan on spending a substantial amount of time in one country and you have an unlocked device, getting a plan from a local provider makes the best sense. If you are spending only a few days in a country, it does not make sense to proceed this way. Getting an international calling plan through your domestic provider, while very expensive in terms of data, works pretty well, as it allows you to make telephone calls at a discounted rate and generally includes text messaging, allowing you to communicate using text messages without running up large data bills with the provider. E-mail, however, counts as data, and the data charges run up very quickly.

Public WiFi

Today, you can access the Internet almost anywhere in the world using freely available WiFi connections. I recently spent three weeks in Europe and did not encounter anyplace that charged for WiFi. We stayed in hotels in England, Portugal, and Spain, all of which provided free WiFi. Virtually every coffee shop, restaurant, and bar we went into provided free WiFi. With a WiFi connection, you can get your e-mail, access document storage, or have video chats with your office, clients, or friends.

I am not a big fan of public WiFi because it exposes you and your data to the bad guys, who can try to access your information, steal it, and use it to their advantage and your disadvantage. The WiFi connections available in airports, hotels, restaurants, and other public places, whether provided free or for a fee, all come under the heading of public WiFi.

When traveling in the United States, I generally do not concern myself with public WiFi as I have a MiFi device (nvtl.com) that gives me a cellular-based personal hotspot and a data account that lets me share 12 GB of data among my devices, including smartphones, computers, and tablets. The devices currently available use 4G connections and provide a pretty fair speed for connectivity. They cost very little to acquire (usually less than $50), accommodate anywhere from five to 15 connections, and make an important addition to any road warrior’s tool kit.

Unfortunately, when traveling internationally or in a plane, cellular hotspot devices have no utility. You cannot use them in the plane, and the cost of using them internationally is prohibitive. Simply put, when you travel internationally, other than for prolonged periods in the same country, you have to pay exorbitant costs, use public WiFi, or forgo the ability to connect to the Internet for work or personal purposes.

So, now the road warrior faces a conundrum. We want Internet access. We do not want to pay exorbitant costs for the connectivity, which we would have to pay to our domestic provider. We want to access the Internet safely and without having our data stolen; but public WiFi, like the Wild West, presents many dangers. What’s a road warrior to do?

Okay, here’s the skinny: Get a MiFi and use it when traveling domestically. Use public WiFi in this country and abroad only when you have to, and only with protection. Using public WiFi without safeguards is like having unprotected sex with strangers. Don’t do it.

Virtual Private Networks

A virtual private network (VPN) offers the public WiFi equivalent of a prophylactic: protection against disease. To use a different analogy, a VPN functions like the BART tunnel through the San Francisco Bay. For those unfamiliar with it, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) built an underwater tunnel through the San Francisco Bay allowing trains to run from Oakland to San Francisco and back. As the tunnel is completely submerged, without it the trains (which run on electricity) would not likely make it across the bay, and even if they did, the passengers would not. The tunnel holds out the water, keeping the passengers dry and safe from drowning or electrocution. A VPN operates the same way, building a tunnel through the Internet that provides protection from dangers lurking in the cloud. (And for the Trekkies out there, here’s yet another analogy: Think of the VPN as a Romulan cloaking device making data invisible to the bad guys as it journeys through cyberspace.)

You can pay an IT person to set up a VPN for you using your equipment, or you can buy access to someone else’s network. I have opted to use a VPN service rather than set up my own. I have found one that I like, called VPN Unlimited. I chose it as it works well, costs a reasonable amount, works on numerous platforms, and gives me the ability to re-route my signal so that it seems to come from any one of a number of locations all over the world. They have servers in 32 different countries in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.

You can get VPN Unlimited for the Mac OS, Windows, Linux, iOS, Windows Phone, and Android devices. A ten-day trial account lets you try it for free. There are a variety of pricing plans ranging from $1.99 for a ten-day vacation plan to $499.99 for “infinity.” By installing and using the software, you insulate yourself and your data from those who might try to access it while you use any WiFi network (public or private—although public networks generally pose greater levels of danger). I leave mine on all the time, as I find it easier to do that than to try to remember to turn it on and off. Leaving it on all the time adds additional protection to my use of the Internet. As the system allows unlimited bandwidth, the amount of data I transmit through it makes no difference to the pricing or performance. Once you download the software, you open the program, create an account for yourself, select a venue, and add the configuration information to your device. Connect to it and you are good to go. You can get the software and more information at vpnunlimitedapp.com. As an added protection VPN Unlimited automatically encrypts your data for transit.

VPN Unlimited certainly is not the only brand on the shelf; you can pick from a good-sized collection of options, but they all have one thing in common: You have to use them if you want protection. Having VPN software on your device without using it to connect to the Internet compares to buying a box of prophylactics and leaving it unopened in your bathroom cabinet. It cannot protect you if you don’t use it.

More Safety Tips

A few other points to keep in mind about staying connected safely:

  1. Use strong passwords for all your accounts. A strong password includes upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. Longer passwords provide more strength.
  2. Keep passwords securely and safely stored.
  3. If you store confidential information in the cloud, encrypt it first, locking it with a strong password.
  4. If you travel internationally, store your information in the cloud, not on your computer or an external drive that you carry with you. As you cross the border into certain countries (including the United States), you can be compelled to decrypt files to allow their inspection. If you do not have the files with you, this issue never arises. If you store your files in the cloud, you can download them and decrypt them for use, then re-encrypt them and put them back in the cloud when you finish, keeping them safe from prying eyes. Remember to erase them from your devices after moving them back into the cloud. Storing information in the cloud has another advantage: If you do not have a file in your possession, you cannot lose it or have it taken from your person.
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Jeffrey Allen

Jeffrey Allen (jallenlawtek@aol.com, jallenlawtekblog.com) is the principal in the law firm of Graves & Allen in Oakland, California. A frequent speaker on technology topics, he is Editor-in-Chief of GPSolo magazine and GPSolo eReport and a member of the Board of Editors of Experience magazine.