VPN stands for “Virtual Private Network” and its purpose is to give you complete privacy in your internet activities

Invisible ManThere have been two different uses of the term “VPN”. The earlier use was in the case of an individual connecting to a work computer while away from that organisation’s internal, local, network. So, for example, a salesman on the road could connect to his work computer using a VPN, log his sales activity, get access to confidential company information and so on. The connection is encrypted (so no-one can “eavesdrop” on the data passing along the connection) and an “ordinary” person could not make that connection to the organisation’s confidential system because he lacked the username and password.

Nowadays, though, the more widespread use of the term VPN means anyone connecting to the internet in such a way that (a) all of the data passing to and fro is encrypted and (b) the identity of the person making the connection is hidden from that person’s ISP (internet Service Provider), and also hidden from the website to which the connection is being made. Let me just add a caveat that there are possible “holes” in the privacy, so just treat this article as an introduction to the subject. If you really need complete assurance of privacy you need to do more research. Some starting points are offered in the links at the foot of this article.

What are the main benefits of using a VPN?

  • Your internet provider (ISP) can not tell where you go and what you do on the internet when you access the internet via a VPN. They almost certainly don’t care, anyway, but thanks to the Snoopers’ Charter (more properly known as The Investigatory Powers Act 2016) they are now obliged to keep logs of your activity for 12 months so that the police can have a look at where you’ve been. They can’t hand over information if they don’t have it.
  • When you connect to a website, then that website can not see your unique IP address (which uniquely identifies you) and they don’t know where you are. In fact, they will think you are located where the server of the VPN provider is located. You can often choose where you want to appear to be when using your VPN (TunnelBear, for instance, offers this facility). Two major things flow from this:
    • The website can’t build a profile of who you are and what you are interested in (and that includes the likes of Google Search). This is a huge step in protecting your privacy.
    • The website can’t pick and choose whether to serve you what you want based upon where in the world you are. A major example of how this can help us Brits is that you can use a VPN to kid BBC iPlayer into thinking you are in the UK (and, therefore able to access its content) whereas you are really in Timbuktu (or anywhere else).
  • Since all of the data is encrypted when using a VPN, it is safer to connect to open wifi hotspots in coffee bars and the like. Anyone eavesdropping on your conversation will only pick up encrypted data.

TunnelBear logo

TunnelBear has a free version of its VPN, allowing you to download 500mb per month

What are the costs of using a VPN?

  • Speed. Since you are adding an extra step to the process (connection to the VPN server through which you connect to the internet), your internet connection will slow down. This will be exacerbated if the VPN server is half way around the world. It will also slow down as everything needs to be encrypted and decrypted. If you start off with a good, fast, connection, on a reasonable computer then my recent tests indicate that the slowdown caused by using a VPN isn’t really a problem any more.
  • Financial. Although you can get a free VPN service that allows up to (say) 500mb of data download per month, that’s not going to get you much BBC iPlayer content. You will need a subscription (about £5-£10 per month) that gives unlimited downloads.
  • You might experience inconvenience from accounts to which you are connected if they suddenly think you must have been hacked. My email program automatically checks my Gmail account and if it does this when I’m playing with a VPN then Google makes the wrong assumption that since my account is being accessed from an IP address not in the UK then someone must have stolen my password. This causes them to fire off umpteen emails telling me “someone has your password”.

BBC iPlayer logo

A VPN whose server is in the UK will let you watch iPlayer abroad

You might think (quite rightly) that everything you do with a VPN must be accessible to whoever controls that VPN. That may be the case, but if the server is outside the UK then it’s not subject to our Snoopers’ Charter. They won’t keep more information about you and your activity than they need to for the purpose of providing the service. If I was either very naughty or very paranoid I would probably investigate this aspect a bit more before trusting the privacy of a VPN.

There are other things that can go wrong when using a VPN. For instance, if the VPN connection is lost then your connection could fall back to your normal connection via your ISP and you might not be aware that you had suddenly “become visible”.

If you are really serious about using a VPN to cover your tracks, then I reccommend investigating the potential problems and how you might overcome them before trusting that a VPN will always give you complete anonymity. You could start by having a look at these links:

VPNs for beginners
A Complete Guide to IP Leaks

.. and to give VPNs a try, I suggest starting with the free offering from TunnelBear

It’s three whole years since I started writing this weekly blog for my computer support clients (and anyone else who may stumble upon it)

3yearSo, I thought I’d have a look back over the last year and see what’s changed and what hasn’t…

In December of last year I got my hands on the iPad Mini. This has now become my favourite piece of computer hardware of all time. Using it with the matching Logitech keyboard, I can do real work away from home without lugging a “proper” computer around. And the latest bit of fun I’ve discovered is to use it as a remote control for the iTunes music collection hosted by my Mac Mini. When they release a version of the iPad that makes a decent cup of coffee, it will be nearly perfect.

Also in December, I started warning about Microsoft’s decision to stop supporting Windows XP and Office 2003 after April 2014. They haven’t changed their minds and nor are they likely to! It’s just possible that these products won’t become irresistible targets for virus attacks after April 2014, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The Microsoft Surface

The Microsoft Surface

In January I was starting to think about buying a Microsoft Surface. This is the very light netbook/tablet that runs a “cut down” version of Windows 8. In the 10 months since then I’ve only had one person even mention them to me and I haven’t seen one in the flesh outside of Peter Jones in Sloane Square. Looks as if Microsoft may have mis-calculated with this product. Certainly, I don’t think it likely that I’m going to have to buy one any time soon in order to keep up with what my clients are interested in.

In February I had a whinge about websites cleverly leading us to make the choices they would prefer us to make, rather than the choices we set out to make. No change there, then. AVG, for instance, are still offering us an orange button to choose the free version of their antivirus program and a green button for the paid one. It’s all very well saying “I’m too intelligent to be led down the wrong path by such tricks“, but this type of practice must work or they wouldn’t be doing it. It’s a piece of cake for them to test the results of a web page that includes such dubious tactics against another that doesn’t. It’s not just AVG doing this, of course.

In April I was still predicting the demise of the computer fair that takes place in the Student Union of London University on a Saturday. I’m happy to report that, so far, I’m wrong. It’s still holding on. I’d much rather pay £2 for a cable at the fair than £10 for the same cable in PC World or wherever. If the nerd in you feels like braving it, just follow the directions on the black and orange placards to be seen along the length of Tottenham Court Road on a Saturday.

Evernote ItemsI gave Evernote several plugs during the year. I find the interface a bit quirky at times, and this is made more complicated by the different interfaces for Mac OSX, Mac IOS, Windows, and Android. And is it just my imagination, or do they keep changing things? Nevertheless, I find Evernote to be robust, useable, and ever more useful as I pour more and more data into it. After just a few months, I wouldn’t want to try and do without it.

In June I had a lefty rant about the government spying on us. At that time the Conservative half (3/4?) of government still wanted to enact the Snooper’s Charter, but Nick Clegg was talking as if he’d got a backbone by saying it wouldn’t happen while he’s still in government (make the most of it, Nick – not much longer now). Anyway, the issue is still definitely alive. As the Guardian put it recently, ” The Home Office’s head of counter-terrorism has revived his fight to secure the return of the “snooper’s charter” legislation”.

And what’s around the corner for the next twelve months? I’ve no idea.

And what would I like in the next twelve months? Well, I do wish the date for fibre optic broadband in my area would stop slipping back. As I see more and more of my clients’ connections delivering really fast download speeds I do rather envy them. I dare say there are plenty of people outside the M25 who would be glad of the 6mbit per sec that manages to get south of the river to SW4, but it still seems slow to me a lot of the time.

Thanks for reading and please stay tuned for year four!

Why is our media getting upset by the NSA and not by our own Snoopers Charter?

The recent storm over data privacy – The Guardian 06/06/13 – has not been caused by the US government accessing private data (it does) but by the fact that it has been receiving wholesale, comprehensive data of Verizon customers, sanctioned by a court order that is not specific to suspected wrongdoers. The customers whose privacy has been breached are US customers. Wholesale access to private data is probably illegal in the US just as it is here.

Verizon Logo

Verizon appear to be complying with a secret Court Order demanding that data on all users be continually handed over to the NSA

So why the massive interest over here? Because this has fuelled speculation that the large, global, companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, have also routinely made all their data available to the US Government. If that is the case then UK citizens are, of course, caught up in this illegal data gathering. All of these companies have denied that they have given access to their servers (computers) to the US government, but they acknowledge that they hand over data in accordance with court orders. See this CNet article of 12/06/13.

The twist that this was then given in the UK media is the speculation that the UK Government (in the form of GCHQ) has been the beneficiary of information about UK citizens that may have been illegally obtained by the US government in this way.

It appears that all the pundits and commentators and politicians are wringing their hands and saying how dreadful it is that the US government may be accessing all this data indiscriminately (instead of requesting specific data relating to specific circumstances relevant to national security, terrorism and so on). And yet, in the very same week, we now find that ex Home Secretaries and other political grandees of all stripes and vintages appear to be banding together to back the “Snoopers Charter” here in the UK whereby internet providers will be legally obliged to keep historic records of all our internet activities so that retrospective trawls of all our private data will be possible by our own government. See The Guardian, 13/06/2013.

St Stephen's Tower - not Big Ben!

Will Labour now support the Tories in revivifying the Snoopers Charter?

So, why should we in the UK be condemning the US government for doing what we are not condemning our own government for contemplating? OK, so the US government is probably acting illegally whereas our own government is planning to give themselves permission first. But that doesn’t make any real difference. The result is still the same: both governments are giving themselves permission one way or another to snoop on ALL of us – every single one of us – who uses the internet or (in the case of Verizon) telephone services.

By the way, time and time again in the last couple of weeks I have heard politicians and commentators refer to the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft as “internet providers”. They are not internet providers. It gives me a queasy feeling to hear the most politically powerful people make such fundamental errors. Have they any grasp at all of what they are talking about?

“Internet providers” are the companies responsible for providing the service that gives us access to the internet – eg British Telecom, Talk Talk, PlusNet, Zen. All of the data that makes up our online activity passes through these providers’ servers (computers). It is this data that our government is seeking to make the internet providers keep and store (at their own expense) so that our government can retrospectively spy on us. This is the essence of the Data Communications Bill (commonly known as the “Snoopers’ Charter”).

In contrast to internet providers, Google, Facebook, et al are providers of specific programs and services. As a necessary part of providing those services they collect, and sometimes store, the data that we give them. They do this legally and in accordance with the EULA (End User Licence Agreement) that we all fail to read when we sign up to a new online service. It is this sort of data that governments both here and in the US can request by a legal process in specific circumstances, but which the US government is now suspected of gobbling up indiscriminately.

Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg – opposes the Snoopers Charter

In the long run, the outcome is the same in that the government can cause data to be stored and made available for analysis by the authorities at any time in the future. OK, this week they may be looking for ramifications to the murder in Woolwich a few weeks ago, but who is to say that next month or year they may not start searching for, say, protestors against Boris Island (assuming that Boris will continue his crusade when he becomes PM), or trades unionists, or people with ginger hair, or anyone else that the government of the day deems to be “a threat”.

If you agree with this increased surveillance by the state, then that is your right. On the other hand, if you are worried about the recent revelations in the US then you should also be worried about the Snoopers Charter. My own opinion is that giving a hostage to fortune by blurting it all out on Facebook or Twitter is just a tiny part of the trouble that we are, literally, storing up for the future if the Snoopers Charter becomes law.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
Privacy Policy Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha