Wander Woman, Marie Javins, explains the pros and cons of using a virtual private network to secure your date while travelling. And how you can too
I've used VPNs – or virtual private networks – in a couple of different circumstances while I've been travelling. I usually use the free ones, but in the case of travelling in China, I used a paid VPN, as do many residents of China.
There are many situations where people need additional privacy. In my case, I need a VPN in three circumstances:
1. To circumvent localised restrictions to buy things:
For example, if I needed to download the US version of a book or software. Often products won't be sold to anyone not physically in the US. When you're abroad and depend on that software for work, that can be a problem.
2. Using a credit card online:
I want to keep that kind of information to myself!
3. Visiting websites and using software I want or need in countries where they are restricted:
That can encompass anything from Facebook to the BBC to Blogger to Skype to collaborative cloud-based software used for work, such as Dropbox.
I have encountered censored websites and VOIP in Gulf countries, Thailand and in China. These places are not alone in restricting access to certain sites, but they are ones I distinctly remember cutting off my access to what I believed to be harmless, utilitarian sites. I know Thailand seems the odd-one-out on that list; I believe it was a media site considered offensive to the King. I could get on everything else with ease in Thailand.
Censorship is a chaotic business, and the censors are constantly behind the innovative hackers finding ways around the censors. Additionally, it's pretty much impossible to censor everything. If you can't get news from one newspaper site, you may be able to get that same news from a smaller newspaper, or a news site from another country.
Using online proxy servers:
When I lived in Kuwait and needed to get onto a censored site or just to convince Amazon to sell me a US-book or to convince Apple to sell me a bit of US-localised hardware, I just searched for "online proxy server". This pulls up a number of free proxies, which would make it look like I was in Chicago or Frankfurt, for example, rather than in Kuwait.
Some will work and some won't work, depending on how much has been blocked. All you do is pull up a site (such as www.hidemyass.com) and type the URL you want into the box that says "Type URL here". Easy. But in countries where censorship is more active, online proxies can be blocked at the local server. So my simple solution from Kuwait didn't work in China.
Using VPN apps:
When I found myself in those kinds of circumstances, I used the more-powerful HotSpot Shield. This is software you download, but you must download it ahead of time as its website will likely be blocked.
The free version is supported by ads, and there might be video ads running while you're using it. That's fine if you are somewhere with fast internet, but it becomes a problem when you're in the double-bind of being censored AND slow. And it seemed to me HotSpot Shield was overloaded in the evenings in China.
When I was last in China, in 2011, I had searched extensively ahead of time and learned that outwitting the censors is a real cat-and-mouse game. What works one month might be blocked the next. All well-known web proxies are blocked, and you have to pay for access to more-effective VPNs, which are constantly working to stay a step ahead of the censors.
Another site I tried using was SecuriTales, which was around $22 for three months at the time. They sent me a link to a site which got me online and got me access to anything. I was travelling with my laptop and it was no problem, but I did try using the website a few times in internet cafes and this led to some dramatic system crashes and me quietly skulking out.
Some final tips:
The best way to use a VPN in a country with censorship is to plan ahead of time and give yourself multiple options in case one route appears blocked. And never assume something will work because you've heard it works -- it may have been blocked within the last week.
If you need something more hardcore, you might want to try Tor -- I remember hearing it's how the Egyptians got around their Internet being cut off. It's not for novices. I tried to configure it on my computer once and it was it was a long drawn out process.
Finally, keep in mind that using VPNs to access censored sites or VOIP is distinctly illegal.
Marie Javins is the author of Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik: One Woman's Solo Misadventures Across Africa and editor-in-chief of Kuwati superhero comic books. She is currently undertaking massive around the world adventure called MariesWorldTour.com. You can follow her exploits here on Wanderlust on her Wander Woman blog.