Privacy advocates have recently raised a number of alarms regarding the security of our online activities. Internet service providers in some countries have the ability to store, distribute, and even sell user data to third parties, both legally and without the user’s consent. Governments engage in mass surveillance, and hackers look for every opportunity to take unsecured data. Sometimes it feels like no matter where you go, someone’s trying to take advantage of you.
All of these privacy issues are made even more stressful when traveling. Not only is public Wi-Fi inherently insecure, but moving from hotspot to hotspot in a new country subjects you to regional laws you may not be aware of. The only way to keep your digital footprint safe is to focus on hardening the privacy of your own device and connection. Fortunately there’s a wide variety of software that helps us do just that.
Why Public Wi-Fi Isn’t Secure
Most of us don’t think twice about accessing Wi-Fi at a cafe or laundromat. We need an internet connection, the business provides one for free, so why not take advantage? Using a public hotspot carries a number of security dangers, however. Even if the Wi-Fi requires a password or registration before you can use it, your privacy isn’t guaranteed.
Public internet works just like any other internet connection. Your device logs on and receives a unique IP address, then you send requests through the service provider’s network and receive data in response. Each request is tied to your IP address and can be used to link online activity to your location and identity. When you’re on a public network, you have no idea who the service provider is or their policy on storing or selling the information they collect. That means using your laptop from the local coffee shop could compromise your online privacy.
While public Wi-Fi carries its own set of privacy risks, unsecured networks are even more unstable. They’re easy to compromise and are often monitored by hackers and eavesdroppers, both of whom use readily available tools to steal passwords and other private data.
Precautions to Take on Public Networks
You can’t avoid using unfamiliar networks when you travel, it’s just part of the experience. You can, however, deploy a few smart practices to help increase your security while surfing at cafes, restaurants, or hotel rooms.
- Confirm the name of the network before logging in – When you search for an open Wi-Fi network in public, you’re likely to see a handful of results. Before connecting to one, make sure you’re not selecting a fake network. Verify the Wi-Fi hotspot’s name with the business you’re in before you connect.
- Find networks that require a password or registration – There are plenty of privacy issues with using public Wi-Fi networks, but using one that doesn’t require registration or even a password is even riskier. These simple barriers can keep out a lot of data snoopers and hackers, resulting in a safer experience for you.
- Use a more secure operating system – If you’re using a laptop and have a choice of operating system, Linux is by far the most secure available. Mac OS comes in second, with Windows at a distant third. Android and iOS are about equal in terms of security on mobile devices.
- Avoid doing sensitive tasks – Things like checking your bank account, online shopping, or even checking your e-mail are best left for home based connections whenever possible.
- Use HTTPS – Websites that deal in personal data often employ a secure HTTP protocol to make sure your information stays safe. If you’re checking e-mail or entering credit card information, double check to make sure HTTPS is displayed in your browser’s URL bar.
- Use strong passwords – Every password you use should be as strong as possible. Four or five digit codes that are a common string of number or letters are extremely easy to crack. The best passwords are a minimum of eight characters, include symbols, and are a mix of upper and lowercase characters. If you’re not confident in your password creation ability, use the online Secure Password Generator.
Encryption: Your Key to Online Privacy
The number one thing you can do to access the internet securely while traveling is to encrypt everything that leaves your computer. Web browsing traffic, cloud storage services, instant messaging, video calling, everything. Encryption essentially wraps a layer of unreadable information around every packet of data. Instead of sending raw information across the internet, your computer sends scrambled bits of code that only it and the intended recipient can read. Think of it like putting a letter in an envelope that only you and your friend can open. Encryption is the common denominator for almost all online security.
There are many different precautions you can take when it comes to securing your traveling devices. You can encrypt the operating system, use browser based encryption, encrypt the traffic that leaves the device, and even encrypt the devices themselves. Each tactic has its own benefits and drawbacks, but by far the most important one is encrypting the traffic that leaves your computer or mobile phone. That’s where VPNs come into play.
Secure Internet while Traveling: Encryption through a VPN
The easiest, most effective, and most direct way to access the internet securely while traveling is to use a virtual private network. VPNs work something like a tunnel between you and the content you’re trying to access. Data on your computer is encrypted before it’s sent through Wi-Fi, keeping the contents safe and unreadable to hackers or the local ISP. Encrypted information is routed through VPN servers, returned to your device, and decrypted, all in a matter of moments. VPNs also assign you a different IP address unrelated to your location, removing an extra layer of personal data to help ensure anonymity.
VPNs work on nearly all modern devices, including laptops, tablets, phones, Chromebooks, and even some e-readers. All you need to do is sign up with a reliable VPN provider and download their software to your device.
How to Choose the Best VPN
Finding a good VPN for traveling can take some time. There’s a lot of information to sort through, including privacy policies, encryption levels, server locations, and much more. We’ve streamlined the process to focus on some of the most important factors in choosing a reliable VPN.
Logging policy – Protecting your privacy should be the number one consideration for a VPN. The most basic form of this comes from logs. It’s possible that encrypted activity that passes through a VPN’s servers is stored for long periods of time. This makes it possible for third parties or government agencies to force the VPN company to share the information, thus compromising your security. To ensure all data remains private, the best VPNs have a strict zero-logging policy. With no logs, nothing can be leaked.
Kill switch and DNS leak protection – The weak point of any VPN is when it connects or disconnects from a server, both intentionally and due to drops in service. During these few seconds it’s possible for your device to leak information. This inspired VPN providers to build automatic kill switches and DNS leak protection into their software. If you lose your encrypted connection, the program automatically stops any data from escaping.
Device compatibility – Most of us don’t carry around desktop computers while we travel. Tablets, smartphones, and laptops are prime candidates for mobile computing, and you’ll want to run a VPN on each one of them. We’ve made sure the services below have software for a wide variety of modern devices so you can stay safe no matter what hardware you’re using.
Server distribution – Having a large network of servers is a key selling point for a good VPN. Not only will it allow you to access a wider range of content, but having more nodes to choose from means you can find a faster, closer connection no matter where you travel.
Jurisdiction – Where a VPN company is registered makes a huge difference in how reliable the service can be. Regardless of the provider’s policy on keeping logs, for example, the local laws can force them to keep certain information and hand it to any third party that requests it. To keep this sort of digital surveillance to a minimum, the providers below operate under jurisdictions with more privacy focused laws in place.
NordVPN uses a stunning double encryption process that wraps data in unbeatable 2048-bit SSL encryption. NordVPN claims supercomputers can’t break encryption that strong, which should make your public Wi-Fi plenty safe. Add that to the massive network of servers in 57 different countries, an easy to understand zero-logging policy, DNS leak and kill switch features, and app support for every major desktop and portable device, and you’ve got a great recipe for a stellar VPN.
Ensuring streaming video availability is another one of NordVPN’s strong points. Services like Netflix tend to block certain IP ranges in an effort to stop VPN users from circumventing geo-locked content restrictions. NordVPN constantly changes their server arrangements to keep Netflix access as open as possible. For up to date info on how to access Netflix with NordVPN, even through Android and iOS, see their support article.
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Private Internet Access
Private Internet Access was built to help make the internet safe for everyone. The company creates some of the easiest to use software and apps on the VPN market, including apps for Android and iOS, even a Chrome extension for fast and easy access to VPN customization. On top of its accessibility features, Private Internet Access also has a zero-logging policy, a digital kill switch, DNS leak protection, and a smart IP cloak to ensure your real IP is never seen.
Another nice feature about Private Internet Access is that it supports L2TP protocols, which are extremely useful for connecting to VPNs within strict censorship countries like China and Turkey. The company has a quick and easy guide on setting this up.
Private Internet Access has several plans available with discounts for longer sign-ups. There’s even a seven day money back guarantee in case you aren’t happy with the service.
VyprVPN goes to great lengths to support user privacy. The company’s number one selling point is the fact that they own and operate their entire networks of servers, over 700 spread across 70 locations. Encrypted data that passes through their servers is never accessed by third parties, and it also lets the VyprVPN team customize hardware and software to deliver superior speed and encryption. A great zero-logging policy, unlimited bandwidth, and both a DNS leak and kill switch support round out the service’s top features.
VyprVPN matches its great security features with a fantastic three day trial, all for free. It’s also available in a wide variety of areas that aren’t covered by some VPNs, including Turkey, Thailand, and Hong Kong.
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VPNs Won’t Solve All of Your Online Security Problems
Although VPNs provide a ton of useful privacy features that make connecting to the internet while traveling much safer, they aren’t without their drawbacks, and they won’t make you invulnerable. VPNs can’t stop malware or viruses, for example, and they also tend to be slower than your average internet connection. The security they provide is well worth the small sacrifices, of course, but it’s a good idea to keep the following in mind when browsing the internet with your VPN.
Devices aren’t automatically protected – Using a VPN means running an app every time you log onto the internet. If the VPN software isn’t active, you won’t gain the encryption or anonymity it offers.
VPNs can be blocked – Some websites and companies actively block people who use certain VPNs. These include streaming services such as Netflix, which makes watching videos while relaxing in your hotel room nearly impossible.
VPNs can’t protect you from malware – Malware can make it onto your computer or smartphone even if you have a VPN active. Encryption does nothing to stop viruses, so you still have to be cautious when visiting unusual websites.
Slow speeds – Encrypting data increases the amount of information sent across your network. Delivering data to servers located farther away also adds to this latency. As a result, many users experience a slight slowdown when using a VPN.
Secure Internet Access with the Tor Browser
The Tor Browser is a free and open source piece of software designed to protect your privacy online. The Tor Browser leverages the Tor network to encrypt traffic, sending it through foreign nodes to strip it of all identifying information so you can surf with increased security. It’s somewhat similar to using a VPN, only the focus here is on anonymity.
For an in-depth guide on using the Tor Browser, including installation instructions and a list of benefits and drawbacks, see our article How to Use Tor: A Guide to Getting Started.
Browser Extensions for Increased Internet Security
Nearly all of our online activities take place through a web browser. Whether you’re checking e-mail on a laptop or looking at new shoes on your phone, chances are a web browser is sending and receiving information. Most browsers don’t do anything to encrypt or obscure personal information. If you’re on a public network, this can be a real problem. Fortunately there are a number of browser extensions available that help secure your data before it leaves your device.
The extensions listed below are trusted by the digital privacy community and were built with user safety in mind. They’re available for most modern browsers, including Chrome, Opera, and Firefox, and also have mobile counterparts for Android and iOS. Follow the links for more information.
- HTTPS Everywhere – An extension made by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) that forces several popular websites to use a secure (HTTPS) connection. An indispensable addition to your extensions list.
- Disconnect – A powerful privacy tool that helps prevent data leaks and keeps your information safe. Also comes in Pro and Premium versions which block malware and even provide VPN services.
- Privacy Badger – Another add-on made by the EFF. This one blocks invasive ads, spying trackers, and helps discourage browser fingerprinting, all without breaking website layouts.
- NoScript – A phenomenal anti-tracking add-on for Firefox and other Mozilla based browsers. A good alternative to Privacy Badger with a few extra features.
Secure Your Cell Phone
Android and iOS devices carry an enormous amount of personal data. With access to your phone, anyone can see your e-mail, look at your bank account, locate your contacts, and even find out where you live. These portable devices are also easy to lose or have stolen, making them a high priority target for thieves and hackers alike.
Before you travel, make sure your cell phone is as secure as possible. This includes basic countermeasures such as setting a strong screen lock code, encrypting your device, and backing up valuable data.
- Use a strong screen lock passcode – We unlock our smartphones dozens of times a day, so it’s tempting to create short passcodes and unlock patterns just to save a little bit of time. Shortening your passcode makes it much easier to hack your device, however. Six digit combinations are a good balance between complexity and ease of use.
- Encrypt your device – Encrypting your phone’s data locks files on your device and makes them unreadable without the proper decryption keys. It doesn’t protect data that’s sent over the internet, but it helps keep hackers and eavesdroppers away.
- Use phone locator services – Both iOS and Android devices have features that let you locate your phone if it was misplaced or stolen. Enable these options to make sure you can quickly recover your phone if it goes missing.
- Enable remote data wipe – If your smartphone gets stolen, the best thing you can do is erase your personal information as quickly as possible.
For more information on securing your cell phone, see the articles listed below.
Switch to a Secure E-mail Provider
Everyone uses e-mail. It’s often the first thing we check when accessing the internet, especially while traveling. Unfortunately, e-mail wasn’t designed to be a secure form of communication. E-mail protocols send data unencrypted, making them easy to intercept and log. It’s the digital equivalent of mailing a postcard. Anyone can read what you wrote, all they need are the right tools.
In recent years several services have risen to the challenge of making e-mail more secure. Some of the measures they adopt include two-factor authentication and end-to-end encryption to make sure only you and the intended recipient see the contents of each e-mail. The services below are either free or extremely low-cost, making them perfect for secure communicating while traveling.
- ProtonMail – One of the most feature rich and reliable encrypted e-mail service providers. Web based access and mobile apps are available.
- Tutanota – A relative newcomer in the industry that delivers private e-mail without the hassle.
- Lavabit – A reliable encrypted e-mail provider with extremely powerful privacy features.