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Summer is just around the corner. This inevitably means that hundreds of millions will set off abroad on their holidays. Although fun and mind-expanding, traveling often exposes you to a number of security risks. Rates of credit card cloning, for example, soar in major tourist hotspots. So too do pickpocketing and confidence scams.
One attack on your financial well-being can come from a place you might least expect – Wi-Fi hotspots. Thankfully, by using a VPN (Virtual Private Network), you can mitigate many of these risks. Read on to find out what a VPN is, how it can keep you safer, and to find out how you can win one of ten premium subscriptions to ZenMate.
What is a VPN?
Before we get into how a VPN can help you while traveling, it’s probably a good idea to recap what they actually do.
A VPN essentially is an encrypted connection that allows you to funnel your internet connection through another computer, typically a server located in a data center. This means that any intermediaries between your computer and the one you’re connecting to – such as the operator of the Wi-Fi hotspot you’re using, a criminal, or your home ISP – cannot spy on what you’re doing. Neither can they tamper with the web pages you see.
That’s about it, really. There are hundreds – if not thousands – of providers. Some are better than others. Some services are aimed at home users, while others are aimed at large businesses. But at a core, fundamental level, they all act as a giant shield between you and anyone who wants to see what you’re doing online.
Threats to Your Security from Open Wi-Fi Hotspots
When you travel abroad, you will invariably always be on the look-out for a Wi-Fi hotspot. After all, mobile data while roaming is extremely expensive, and you’re going to want to check your emails and share your holiday snaps with your Facebook friends.
A sizable chunk of the hotspots you’ll connect to will be unencrypted. The advantage of these is that you don’t have to ask the hotel manager, waiter, or bartender for the Wi-Fi password. The downside of them – and it is a large downside – is that unencrypted wireless networks are open season for cyber criminals.
If you’re on an unencrypted Wi-Fi network and the site you’re on doesn’t use HTTPS, it’s possible for an attacker to see everything you’re doing. The entire notion of privacy goes out the window, as you broadcast everything you see and send to the rest of the network in plaintext. This is probably the biggest risk associated with open wireless networks.
The second biggest threat is that they leave you open to is session hijacking attacks. This is where someone intercepts messages sent between your computer and an online service, and picks out the details that identify your ‘session’. The attacker then used this information to trick that service into giving them access to your account.
Session hijacking attacks used to be a pretty serious problem. In 2010, a number of well-known social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter were vulnerable to it. There was even a Firefox plugin called FireSheep that made the process worryingly trivial. An attacker could just install it, head to Starbucks, and take over Facebook sessions at will.
Thankfully, things have gotten much better in the past six years, largely thanks to security features like HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS), which is now present in virtually every mainstream browser. HTTPS, which defeats session hijacking attacks, is also virtually ubiquitous. Now that it’s possible to get an SSL certificate for free, there’s no excuse for site operators to not use encrypted communications.
But those sites who are yet to encrypt their traffic still expose their users to this type of attack. Thankfully, there’s a sure-fire way for people to protect themselves, and that’s with a VPN.
Threats to Your Privacy from Open Wi-Fi Hotspots
While the security risks that come from using open wireless networks are well documented, there are also privacy concerns that are less well understood. We’ve already talked about how third-parties can intercept Wi-Fi hotspot traffic. But there are also risks to your privacy from the operators of Wi-Fi hotspots themselves.
In many countries, operators of Wi-Fi hotspots are compelled by law to capture and retain records of their users’ activity. In the case of Germany, it includes the personal information of the person connected, and the metadata of each site visited.
Some WiFi hotspots actually interfere with their users’ traffic in order to surreptitiously insert advertisements into the pages. Many large companies have been caught doing that, including AT&T, Comcast’s Xfinity public Wi-fi, and a number of well-known hotel chains. Sadly, this much-loathed practice didn’t die when Phorm – one of the largest providers of ISP-level advert injection services – did.
It’s worth noting that your VPN provider can inject adverts, and many free VPN providers use this as a tool to monetize their service. Virtually no premium VPN services (those being the ones that you pay for) do that, however.
What Other Uses Are There For VPNs?
Of course, keeping you safe when traveling is just one thing that VPNs excel at. There’s a veritable laundry-list of applications for them. For example, they are used extensively by businesses to allow their employees to securely access their internal systems while they’re away from the office. Home users, on the other hand, use them for a variety of reasons.
Some use VPNs in order to prevent their ISPs from “shaping” their traffic – where some traffic is prioritized at the expense of other types of network traffic, like those for online streaming services. Other people use them to pirate movies and music without attracting the watchful eye of the recording and movie industries. VPNs are even used to mask the location of a computer, so that the user can watch region-restricted content, although sites like Netflix and BBC iPlayer are cracking down on this.
Whatever your reasons, it’s always a good idea to have access to a VPN. You never know when you’re going to need one.
There are a lot of great providers, but one we don’t hesitate to recommend is ZenMate. With blazing-fast speeds, no logging, and no adverts, it’s one of the best VPN products on the market. We’ve teamed up with them to offer our readers the chance to win one of ten subscriptions to their premium service, which includes a greater number of endpoints, malware filtering, and more. For your chance to win, enter the giveaway in the widget above.
Photo Credits: MiniYo73 (WiFi)