VPN’s Revisited

A few years back, I did a post on secure networks. The technology has changed and improved and Steve Dashew asked me to do a post on what I am using now. As boaters, we are frequently using public computers or open WiFi connections and security has the potential to be a real issue for us when we are opening personal, password protected accounts of all types. There are other issues – even at home using a national ISP that are bothersome.

Much of the traffic you send out over the internet is recorded by your ISP – so they know the websites you have visited. Further, much of what you send out when you visit a website is traceable to you – they know the IP address of your computer. Finally, when using public computers and WiFi, there are a variety of ways for folks to listen in to your transmission using keystroke loggers and the like to obtain user names and passwords. All of the above have always made me a bit nervous for obvious reasons.

Enter the Virtual Private Network but, more importantly what it does.

Basically, all of your internet traffic is encrypted and sent to a secure server. It effectively amounts to a secure tunnel thru the internet so all of your traffic is private and secure – even on open WiFI or monitored networks – in both directions.

Your traffic is them routed through the private network ensuring that your original IP address is kept private from the websites you visit. Thus your online identity is private.

There are a number of options out there to establish a VPN but I picked one called SurfEasy which charges roughly USD 70 per year for unlimited use. There are a number of additional features which made Surf Easy attractive.

First, their privacy policy states that they do not keep records of your browsing activities except “To respond to legal requests and prevent harm. SurfEasy may maintain usage for an individual user or account if there is a good faith belief that the response is required by law.”

Second, all passwords and bookmarks are stored locally on your password protected access key that you carry with you – not on SurfEasy’s servers.

Now on to how it works. SurfEasy comes in the form of a credit card with a USB key built in to it so it can easily be carried around in your wallet or purse with your other credit cards.

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The ultrathin USB key is simply removed from the holder when it is needed.

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The USB key is inserted in to any available USB slot on any computer. Here it is shown inserted in to the USB slot on my Mac keyboard.

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The blue LED indicates it is operational.

No software needs to be installed on the computer – it is all stored aboard the USB key. To launch the service is a simple matter or clicking on the SurfEasy icon which appears when he USB key is inserted. There is a brief, one time set up procedure to go thru when the SurfEasy key is being activated for the first time to establish a user account and password for the USB key.

When the SurfEasy key is plugged in to a computer, a user password is required to activate the service. As the password is stored locally on the key, the only way to recover from a lost password is to download a recovery tool from SurfEasy and go thru the initial set up again – all data that was on the key is erased in this process.

Once the correct password is entered, SurfEasy launches a familiar Mozilla style browser.

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Since all of the passwords are stored locally, I set up bookmarks in the toolbar for commonly accessed accounts – email, brokerage, and banking. Now only one password to remember – the one to launch SurfEasy. Further, since the passwords are all stored on the key, there is no danger of anyone getting them unless they have the password to your USB key.

Another important note. I have noticed no speed changes when using SurfEasy but speed does depend on the capacity of their servers, their locations and bandwidth as well as the number of users since all of your traffic is routed thru their serves. Currently they have servers in the US, UK, Singapore and Brazil and say they will add more as needed. The user can select the server to connect to from within SurfEasy toolbar. Speed also depends, of course, on things not related to SurfEasy since ultimate speed is limited to the slowest link in the communications chain between you and your destination URL.

I have been using it for several months and so far, it has worked exactly as advertised.

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6 Responses to VPN’s Revisited

  1. Mike Dicks says:

    Looks like a great tool Pete, did you purchase this in the US. Security always has been an issue for those of us traveling frequently and using hotel and cafe Internet.

    • myironlady says:

      Hi Mike – you can order from their website surfeasy.com. From their contact info it looks like they have operations in the US, Canada and the UK. Best to check directly with them about shipping internationally. If they don’t, maybe you can arrange to pick one up on one of your long hauls to this side. From the pics, your boat looks great!


  2. Simon says:

    Sounds like a great thing for beeing able to use it with public computers.
    I’m using a vpn-tunnel I installed on a small server at home, for mutch the same reason.
    It’s easy to creat your own vpn with open-vpn as an example.
    The best thing about it is, that once the tunnel is up, there is no difference in security between beeing at home (when that is where your server is) or any where else in the world. For the internet, you’re allways at home.
    (As a side note, as a none-US citizen, I find the “good faith belief” part really disturbing, and would not use SurfEasy for that reason.)

    • myironlady says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      Your arrangement is better, but most folks will not want to go thru the extra effort and cost to set up a server to create a tunnel of their own. As a next best, products like Surfeasy are a good choice and have the benefit of being portable for use on any public computer with a USB port (or any other computer for that matter including the 2 (soon 1 more) that I have on the boat). Unfortunately, we all leave pretty large digital footprints whether we hide behind servers or not – and – we frequently make it worse by acts of our own commission (Twitter, Facebook, et al). There is some risk that the “good faith belief” thing could be exploited but I don’t see any reason why someone would have any interest in my online activities other then the bad guys looking to steal personal data.

  3. Ward says:

    The possible speed issues of a VPN are mentioned in the article:

    “Speed also depends, of course, on things not related to SurfEasy since ultimate speed is limited to the slowest link in the communications chain between you and your destination URL.”

    It might be worth giving a bit more detail to clarify this and to comment on Simon’s suggestion.

    When you’re using SurfEasy or a private VPN to your own home server, all data goes to and from your computer to the other end of the VPN (or the home server), then from there to whatever site you are accessing. If you’re in New Zealand and connected to SurfEasy’s server in the US, if you access a web site that’s also in New Zealand, your data is going NZ–US–NZ. To me, this is a big limitation of a do-it-yourself VPN: most people’s home connections aren’t sufficient to support data going in and out on the way to the remote end of the VPN. One of the reasons for paying for a service like SurfEasy is to get access to multiple servers that are spread over more locations.

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