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Tag Archives: Internet

VPNs: Not Just A Business Tool

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VPN

VPNs — which stand for “Virtual Private Network” — are often seen as just a tool for high-end business users who need to encrypt serious secrets — but they can offer both security and access to just about anybody with an Internet connection.

The basics of a VPN are pretty simple. Any data you send over the Internet — whether that’s an email to your Aunt Gladys, an order online for some books or the details of your investment accounts — can, in theory, be intercepted and read. That’s not a good thing, although, depending on the nature of the connection and the nature of encryption used, the odds may be quite low that this will happen.

Still, security online is a good thing, and that’s where a VPN comes in. If you think of the Internet as a massive bunch of phone lines (a simplification, but bear with me here) going into an exchange and then out again, then the VPN is, in essence, a single protected phone line that spans that exchange to your destination online (no matter what that might be) that only you (or people you explicitly invite into your network) have access to. Data on the line is encrypted and secure, no matter what it is.

That’s why VPNs are popular with businesses, as they allow remote workers — whether they’re in a fast food joint offering free Wi-Fi or halfway around the planet — to access the local office network with the same level of security that they’d have within the office. But the benefits of VPNs shouldn’t be there only for businesses; as we all do more with our money online, it’s a good idea to have peace of mind about where your data is actually being seen, especially if you’re using an unfamiliar network to access it. That’s also true while travelling, and there’s an added benefit to VPNs with particular consumer focus here.

Aside from encrypting the data travelling across the public Internet, a VPN also hides the origin point of your Internet access as part of its security measures. When you’re in a country with very strict Internet access controls, a VPN can both keep the snoopers at bay as well as allow access to services that might otherwise be blocked. The reverse is true too; if you use a VPN in Australia, that’s not where your data needs to appear to be coming from. Why is that important? If you’ve browsed around online long enough, you’ve probably hit sites that automatically pegged that you were in Australia. That can be handy for things like currency conversion, but equally it can frustrate if there’s content that geographically blocked for your access. A VPN can have any endpoint that the VPN provider offers — and this should sidestep those kinds of limitations, at least in theory. Sidestepping geoblocking is a bit of a cat and mouse game, which is why this kind of provision is usually seen as an “added extra” for VPN usage — but it’s a nice frill to have when it works.

VPN services range from the relatively limited and cheap all the way up to the full-fat but costly — but in most cases, that’s still only in the range of a few dollars a month. Shop around — and make sure that your chosen VPN offers the features that matter to you — and soon you’ll be able to bank, email and do much more with peace of mind that your data is secure.


What can you do with 1TB of data?

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Recent weeks have seen some immense shifts in the home broadband space in Australia. It all kicked off when Telstra announced new and surprisingly competitive plans. I say surprisingly simply because, historically speaking, Telstra’s been amongst the last of the ISPs to shift its data offerings forwards, pursuing more of the premium market (through its Next G wireless) or bundled offerings through mobile phones and landlines.

Suddenly, for less than $100, you could get 200GB of data per month, from Telstra. Competing ISPs weren’t happy, not the least because some of these prices were cheaper than they were selling wholesale to other ISPs. Many of them rely on using Telstra’s wholesale services in bulk to make their money, and if consumer rates are cheaper than wholesale rates they can’t do that.

While that plays out in the legal sphere, the other ISPs haven’t been sitting still. A week after Telstra dropped its pricing bombshell, Internode answered with plans offering 240GB.  A week later iiNet announced plans with a total of 1TB (1,000GB) per month download plans. Within hours, Primus was offering 1.1TB plans, and TPG now offers a 1TB plan as well.

Storage is cheaper than it’s ever been, but it’s a fair guess that many readers won’t have that much storage space in their entire PC. So, if relatively few users have 1Tb per month to spare, is there actually value in these plans?

To an extent – and it’s even a legal extent —  yes, there can be. The ISPs in question aren’t banking on every user on a 1TB plan using the whole 1TB per month. Like many services, they figure most users won’t go through that much, but they’ll get the money either way.

What 1TB does buy you is a fair amount of security in terms of getting shaped. You could download a month’s worth of legal download movies (from, say, iTunes) and still be within your cap. Stream an awful lot of video from those services that the given ISPs don’t already allow under the cap, catching up on as much free-to-air TV as you like.  Obviously there’s a market of people who will never need 1TB, but if you’re sitting on a plan where you consistently get shaped for the last couple of months of your plan, and it’s close to the typical $99 price point that many of these plans go for, there’s a strong argument to say that you could be doing better.


Can Networking be made easy?

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Most — not quite all, but almost all — of the home broadband connections sold in Australia come with a network attached. I’m not talking here of the internet that you pay money for and connect to, but the wired/wireless network delivered by a router of some sort. It’s certainly possible to set up a broadband connection using only a modem, but they’re becoming increasingly rare in the marketplace. Most ISPs push the router option over a simple modem if you’re buying from them, and even store shelves are stacked high with combination modem-routers, with a tiny section at the bottom for the basic modem models.

From one perspective, this makes a lot of sense. A router acts like a digital post office, sending your internet connection to any computer (or other device) you’d care to share your internet connection and files with. There are some pretty well known problems with security — especially wireless security — with routers, but there’s a bigger and more fundamental problem. Most routers can be utter torture just to get up and running.

I was recently at the launch of a new range of Belkin routers where the company revealed some of its support statistics. Belkin, like most vendors, offers two different ways to set up one of its routers. Those with plenty of networking knowledge can dive right into the web-based interface, tweaking MTU, VPI and PPPoE settings to their heart’s content. That’s not most folks, however. Most people will opt for the installation CD provided with the router, hoping that the automated setup wizard will step them easily through getting the router working.

Quite how many fail is rather eye opening. Only 10% of those who buy a router, according to Belkin, will get it working without having to call tech support, and even those folks have to interact with the router some 45 times — presumably that’s a lot of button clicking and password entry — before things are up and running. That’s a lot of stress in an area that few people are all that au fait with, really. I’m in a position where I do know my way around a router, but to put it in a context for myself, if I had to interact with my car 45 times before I could get it started, I’d give up and take the bus every time. And I really don’t like the bus much.

There’s a certain undeniable extent to which networking can’t be made easy when and if things go wrong, as there’s a lot of failure points to deal with. One solution would be to go for a product that’s either pre-configured by your ISP, which often comes with the extra dangling carrot of being “free”, or at least rather cheap. You can’t get something for nothing, however, as most of the models sold this way are locked to a single ISP, and they’re not always optimally configured in terms of wireless security in any case. Change ISPs, and you’d have to wastefully get an entirely new router, or pay a penalty fee for “unlocking” your own property. This isn’t always the case, so be sure to check carefully upfront.


Privacy online: A quick primer

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One of the ongoing themes of the Internet age has been the question of privacy, and how to maintain it in an increasingly online world. It’s something that’s come to the fore recently with a lot of concern over the way that Facebook uses and utilises the data put into it, whether it’s simply making those details public for the world to see, or selling complex analytical information on to advertisers. It’s driven some people to deliberately abandon Facebook altogether, although undeniably not quite as many as the protest movement might have liked.

Online privacy is a complex and undoubtedly touchy subject, if only because it means different things to different people. An eight year old’s understanding of privacy is quite different to an eighteen year old’s, and even more removed from that of an eighty year old’s, for that matter. Some folk are naturally extroverted, while others sit at home frantically wrapping tin foil round and round their skulls.

There are a few basic things that you should keep in mind in terms of online privacy, however.

1) Your private information is valuable

I’m not just talking credit card numbers or your mother’s maiden name here. As an example, If you’ve used social media platform Twitter and ever mentioned a hot topic — be it iPads, Justin Bieber or Arab-Israeli politics — chances are you’ll pick up a whole bunch of “interesting” followers. You might not think it, but the things you choose to chat about online reveal plenty of private information about you. Automated Twitter followers are just the thin end of the wedge. Advertisers love knowing more about you, because it allows them to send more targeted ads. Targeted ads are more likely to result in sales, which means money. Hence, your private information is valuable, and not just to you.

2) If you don’t put it up there, it’s not going up there (maybe)

This is one of those obvious-in-hindsight things. You can’t stop your house being in public view, but you can pull the curtains to stop folks peering in through the curtains. The same is true online. If you don’t post pictures to Facebook of the company party, then they’re less likely to go up there. I say less likely, because you might not be the only one with a camera, and if you share the shots someone else might get that bright idea. As such, sensitive information (whatever it might be) should be shared with the implicit understanding that you want it to remain private.

3) The Internet is forever

Just like that awesome tattoo of Guns N Roses that you figured was a great idea to get embedded on your forehead at age 18, really. Often, it’s just as “good” an idea as the tattoo might have been, but the consequences will last long beyond your initial interest in most cases.  As plenty of public figures and companies have discovered, once it’s online, chances are if there’s interest in it, it’s staying up there — somewhere. There are legal remedies for issues such as libel, but even those create a virtual paper trail drawing attention to the issue involved.

4) Keep yourself safe and secure

A well trodden path here, but one that crops up over and over again. The Internet can be great for meeting new folks, but don’t lose sight of common sense. Just as it can be used to maintain privacy, it can also be used to create a false facade. As cartoonist Peter Steiner put it all the way back in 1993, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Internet,_nobody_knows_you’re_a_dog). Or a con artist, or worse. In financial matters, this means making sure any site that asks for financial or personal information is secured. Look at least for a padlock symbol in the address bar or bottom of Web pages, keep anti-virus software up to date, and do a quick Google search for the company name before committing any funds. Adding the qualifier “sucks” (or similar) may bring up customer complaints. Too many complaints? Find another online store.

For personal interactions it’s even more vital to stay safe. Not everyone online is out to get you, certainly, but some sensible actions when meeting online “friends” in real life should include only meeting in public places, and preferably in the company of an actual friend of your own. It may create some initial social awkwardness, but it beats many of the sad alternatives.


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