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VPN for the rest of us: Interview with WiTopia

VPN, aka Virtual Private Network, is a technology that lets you securely share data across public networks. For the most part, when I think VPN, I typically imagine work-related corporate or federal government accounts, or people accessing the net in countries with excessive government surveillance.

But there's a lot more that VPN can do. For example, it's an essential technology for sports fans who must shift the geographic location of their IP addresses so they can watch blacked-out sports from their broadcast region. It's also popular with travelers and coffee-shop-based tech workers who regularly access shared WiFi networks. Nothing harshes your caffeine buzz like having your passwords stolen from your over-the-air traffic.

Many people use VPN because it's a work requirement. Others purchase a private account for one of the four reasons here:

  1. Security. They share public WiFI hotspots and want to protect their data at cafes, airports and hotels. They'd rather not share their personal credentials with identity thieves.
  2. Censorship. They need an end-run around corporate (no playing at the office) or government censorship (think China), so they can access services and websites that they'd otherwise be cut off from.
  3. Privacy. They want to avoid oversight, tracking and other privacy infringement by websites like Google.
  4. Region Shifting. They're looking to shift locations to access georestricted resources like local blacked-out football games or Hulu from outside the US.

I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Bill Bullock, CEO of WiTopia, a personal VPN services provider, to chat about the technology. WiTopia has a good reputation at TUAW and several of our bloggers are customers. Its focus is on providing privacy and security for general users rather than aiming at the total-anonymity user base.

WiTopia is practically a geriatric, old-age pensioner in this field, having been founded back in 2005. Bullock told me, "Before us, VPN was really thought to be mostly a corporate and government product. We were one of the first to put out a consumer market VPN."

Bullock talked to me about security issues and why home users might want to invest in a VPN account. "Our VPN works over any connection across wires or Wi-Fi." Many consumers don't consider how vulnerable shared wired connections can be, but at hotels, users will still be sharing the same network. "If someone's in another room, they may be able to sniff your traffic." People often feel more secure on a wire, but their data is just as exposed.

Sniffing your data, or monitoring the traffic eminating from your computer, is a potential problem at public hotspots. "There are a number of tools available that people with little technical knowledge can use. There's one called FireSheep that works right out of the Firefox browser. It could take over a person's Facebook account, Twitter account, etc. You could hijack a session and log into those services. It's an example of a very easy to use tool that a kid could use."

Bullock described a number of other attacks such as one called an "evil twin" attack, where a hacker mimics a local hotspot, encouraging unsuspecting users to connect. It's a kind of WiFi phishing you might encounter at a coffee shop or airport.

"You go to see what available wireless networks there are, one might be called FREE WIFI. This is a common thing that bad guys use, where someone advertises their laptop as a WiFi network. You're actually logging on to that laptop. At airports, there are lots of people with a laptop, so they blend in. You still get Internet access because they're hooked up to let you do that but all your data is going through their computer and can be seen and captured."

By using a VPN connection to encrypt the traffic from your device, it protects you against these kinds of attacks. Even if you end up moving through a dishonest WiFi broker, they can't read your data.

"If you're on public WiFi, you should be using VPN," Bullock said. "It's a matter of education. People used to leave their doors unlocked, but now they don't. Does that mean someone will break in the house? We hope not but WiFi is just radio, just like a radio station. Someone with a little bit of knowledge can capture all your data. They compromise your data and can steal your identity. We don't wish to spread paranoia but it only takes one time to really mess up your life."

VPN can also be valuable to those who aren't on the move. When at home or at the office, privacy is the major driver to VPN services. "When you connect to the VPN, we assign you one of our IP addresses, so there's a level of personal privacy. Even if you do a Google search, where there will still be cookies, it gives you a level of personal privacy."

Bullock explained that many sites track users by IP addresses. What's more, these addresses don't change as often as you might think they do. "Even with dynamically assigned IPs, I've kept the same Verizon IP address for over a year. If I don't have the VPN on, every search I do is tagged to this IP address and stored.

"We all do searches on personally identifiable information. Most people don't want to think about it, but likely every search you have ever done in your entire life is stored on a server somewhere and mapped to a handful of IP addresses that can be identified as you. VPNs give you the ability to opt-out of this information gathering."

With VPN you join a group of shared IP addresses that essentially anonymize you into a crowd. "We have thousands of addresses. It's a WiTopia address that's shared among many, many, many people. You get to be lost in the crowd; your ID is cloaked. All traces back to you stop at the Witopia gateway."

Because of privacy and security, nearly everyone might consider a personal VPN account. The service works on Macs and Windows, as well as on mobile devices. "Apple has done a really good job of supporting VPN protocols. It's very easy to use on an iPhone or an iPad. You set it up once and after that just slide to ON in Settings. Two, three seconds later, you're ready to use the public WiFi hotspot at Starbucks."

WiTopia's basic service costs US$50/year with unlimited data and city switching (in case you want to try out iPlayer or watch Hulu). If you don't like the service within 30 days, you can cancel for a full money-back guarantee.

So, how does VPN work in real life? I'll discuss my experiences testing the service in my next post, where I go hands on with WiTopia. It wasn't all smooth going, but it gave me a lot to think about.

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