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Internet privacy on the road

1: Online security while travelling with your own device (part 1)


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This page deals with using an ultraportable computer (possibly in conjunction with a mobile phone or dongle) when travelling.

The next page deals with using a smartphone/phablet when travelling.


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A victim of the technology?


When I began my roaming across Asian and Australasian continents, my communication equipment weighed around the same as my passport. A pen, a few aerogrammes and a tiny notebook containing addresses and emergency contact numbers were all I needed to get me through a year and a half on the road. When I ran low on funds in Kathmandu, I sent a telegram to contact friends for a cash transfer.

It's considered normal today to need to pack at least one battery charger for your electronic gear. Most travellers will probably carry a digital camera and spare batteries, possibly with extra lenses and filters. Many will supplement that with smartphone, iPad, stereo player and battery extender. Time with your travel partner in the hotel may become less of a discussion of the day's highlights and planning for the next day than a distraction of charging leads and SIM cards, checking emails and updating social media pages.

This page doesn't set out to prescribe a single mode of travel as inherently more satisfying, but I do want to point out that being festooned with equipment which serves to connect you firmly with your home base is not necessary. It doesn't have to be so; travel can be equally enjoyable - some might say more enjoyable and anxiety-free - when you practise thinning down your techno-based dependancies.

Getting online - a summary of your options.


Unfortunately, going light to get online isn't necessarily either secure or convenient. However, modern equipment such as ultraportable computers and Internet dongles makes carrying your own setup less punishing than it used to be. Here is my summary of your options in descending order of convenience and security:

  1. Your own ultraportable computer with an Internet dongle or smartphone as Internet connection (own cellular network provider);

  2. A tablet computer, plus separate keyboard, with your own cellular network provider;

  3. A smartphone (own cellular network provider) as a standalone, using a Bluetooth keyboard;

  4. Your own ultraportable computer using public Wi-Fi (hotel, coffee shop) through a VPN as Internet connection;

  5. A tablet computer with your own cellular network provider but no separate keyboard, beware;

  6. A tablet computer using public Wi-Fi (hotel, coffee shop) through a VPN as Internet connection but no separate keyboard, beware;

  7. A smartphone on its own with no external keyboard using public Wi-Fi (hotel, coffee shop) through a VPN;

  8. Internet cafe with your own USB drive containing personal programs such as Firefox and KeePass;

  9. Internet cafe using their own computer and its programs.

  10. Your own ultraportable computer or tablet computer using public Wi-Fi (hotel, coffee shop) without a VPN.

These options are explained in more detail on this page and the next.

Don't lump that laptop along...


Probably the safest way to connect to the Internet when you travel is to carry your own computer. You write your emails and messages in the privacy and calm of your hotel room. You don't need to risk your password being snagged by a keylogger in an Internet cafe, and you use a machine whose keyboard and navigation methods are known and predictable. It is not necessary to purchase a new computer for travel (unless some issues such as hard-drive noises or freezing-up have shown themselves before) but make sure you give its cooling system a good cleanout with compressed air before you leave. Tropical temperatures can stress the processor to failure point if the cooling fan and vents are clogged. If your older computer does not have the ability to connect to wireless networks (Wi-Fi), you will be severely limited in your options for getting online. You could always purchase a Wi-Fi adaptor, or stick to using a USB Internet dongle as your connections choice.

Unless you already have one, don’t buy a whacking great laptop computer just for your travels - they are heavy to carry, and their physical size invites theft no matter what you do with them. Much better is a subnotebook or an ultraportable, which is a very compact computer little bigger or heavier than a chunky travel guidebook (less than 2kg, and possibly below 1kg). In fact, with the plentiful availability of PDF versions of travel guides, the subnotebook or ultraportable can replace the guidebook and still be up for other jobs as well.

About ten years ago, a computer based on the One Laptop Per Child project emerged. It was called a netbook computer, and it had a solid-state drive, ran a Linux operating system and kickstarted the move towards lighter and cheaper machines:

(click on the thumbnail picture to enlarge)

With time, the netbook concept widened to include machines running Windows XP (and then Windows 7), with full hard-drives of 320GB or even 500GB capacity. The LED-backlit screens and dual-core processors made the netbooks about as powerful and easy to work on as full-sized laptop computers were ten years before them, notwithstanding the smaller keyboard size. They could run a few browser tabs, but quickly slowed when running a more substantial program such as Photoshop.

You won’t find many netbooks in the shops today, however; they have mostly mutated into convertible computers, with a detachable keyboard to turn the compact ‘laptop’ into a tablet. I won’t recommend these for travel (unless they are the most expensive in their class, such as the Microsoft Surface) as the screen-keyboard joint forms a weak point in the design. Not all subnotebooks or ultraportables are created equal, either. The original netbook concept was for a machine rugged enough for tough travel, with no spinning hard-drive, and Linux as the operating system. It is hard to find a subnotebook running Linux today, although that operating system gives an additional armour layer to your security. The Chromebook is an exception, running a variant of Linux called Chrome OS. It has solid-state memory. However, Chromebooks are only worth considering if you expect to have good Wi-Fi connectivity everywhere you go, as your data, and most applications the computer runs, reside in the ‘cloud’ (pooled resources on servers, linked to your machine by the Internet).

Out of the box, a Linux machine cannot accept software installs without your permission, and there are very few viruses and spyware programs which will run on Linux anyway. The newer Microsoft operating systems, Windows 8 and 10, have reasonable security today but an unintended infection with a trojan program remains a risk. It pays to have a good security suite running if you take any Windows’ computer into the wild.

Connecting to the 'Net


You can use a smartphone as a Wi-Fi source (it’s called ‘tethering’ or personal Wi-Fi hotspot, and it is good to check that both the phone you will carry and intended cellular network provider allow it, as some do not). If you are buying a new smartphone for this purpose, pick a small one which matches the requirements for international use (multi-band, 2G/3G/4G). See the second page of this guide for more about smartphones and cellular networks. As you will already be toting a computer with a large(r) screen, having a screen big enough on which to watch a movie on your smartphone is only adding to the bulk you'll carry.

wifi tethering

Your phone generates its own Wi-Fi signal, which your computer connects to as if it were another Wi-Fi source. This means that instead of doing all your browsing on the very limited screen of your phone, you connect to the Internet on your computer through the cellular network provider already activated on your phone. You will have to watch your data use closely in most cases, as the computer will not request the smaller image sizes on a site's "mobile" version, if one is provided, but instead load everything at maximum size. For security and economy, you'll want to pick a strong password for the phone's Wi-Fi authentication, so someone near you doesn't piggy-back on the free Wi-Fi your phone is providing.

Another option is a USB device called an Internet dongle, which is really just a mobile phone without a screen or ability to make voice calls. The next part of this guide also has more on your options of Internet dongle for travel.

If you don’t have an Internet dongle or want to use a phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot, you’ll have to search out free Wi-Fi in cafes and restaurants. Perhaps your hotel offers Wi-Fi - either free or for a small charge. A useful accesory to install on your computer is a Wi-Fi network tester. The Xirrus Wi-Fi inspector claims to label rogue access points, has a clear user interface and is free. It runs only on Windows.

xirrus wifi

If there is no public Wi-Fi in your hotel and nothing shown nearby, you can always visit a cybercafe to connect either with their Wi-Fi or Ethernet connection (that’s if your computer sports a socket to plug in the connection - many of the newer ultraportables do not). Beware of public Wi-Fi, though, it’s not secure enough to trust with your banking transactions without undertaking further measures.

Even if you are given a unique password and user name, public Wi-Fi works as a big open network. (The user name/PW bit is usually just to ensure you don't stay online too long or download massive files.) Other users can, if they are so inclined, view the sites you connect to and may even be able to redirect you to another page from the one you intended to visit. This is called a "man-in-the-middle attack". The page may be a bank login page, crafted to be identical to one you are used to and showing the expected secure https protocol, where you enter your credentials. Unfortunately, you will have just handed over those details to a third party as the page was hosted not by your bank but by a criminal gang. Another possibility is that the page you arrive at attempts to add some unauthorised software to your computer, a "drive-by" download, which may again snare passwords. Be certain your firewall is active and disable file-sharing on the Wi-Fi network. This video explains how to do this for Windows and Mac:

The best way to gain privacy and security on a public Wi-Fi network is to use a VPN - a virtual private network. The best ones (speed, amount of data you can upload and download) cost money, but free ones have their use if all you expect to do is check emails and bank statements. A VPN transmits your Internet communication in an encrypted "tunnel" to the VPN provider, before it is forwarded to the site you wish to access. A snooper on the Wi-Fi network will have no indication of the site you are connecting to at the endpoint, nor the content of your communication.

The matter of your VPN provider's geographical location is important if you intend to spend a lot of time online, and most definitely if you are paying for the service. Consider the case of someone travelling in South Asia who uses a VPN provider based in the USA and who wants to check email on a target server located in Europe. In this case, one data packet's outbound hop from Asia to the USA and back to Europe adds to the ping time (reaction time) of their connection. And that is only one packet's trip - a typical connection to a web site or email server needs tens to hundreds of data packets to make trips to and from your computer and the remote one. The delay between sending the request and seeing the result is called latency, and means that - even if the download speed seems acceptable with an established connection - the connection seems laggardly. Online applications may fail, and VoIP (voice-over-IP services, such as Skype) may suffer breakup with excessive latency. Sign up for the free VPN, or use a free trial of a paid one, then test it. When checking your VPN, you might find Pingtest useful for selecting a service (don't worry about the packet loss test at this point), but be aware that results from your home location may be different from when you are travelling in another country. Pingtest lets you emulate this by selecting a remote server location.

Although it is not strictly a VPN, don't forget the TOR network for privacy when you are using an open Wi-Fi network. Latency on the TOR network will be rather high, as your connection is shunted between relays to generate anonymity. Both TOR and a VPN network are things you should set up and configure before you leave home, so as to be sure they work in the environment you are familiar with.

Beware of serious side-effects with these tablets!


Many readers will be wondering why I haven’t given much prominence to tablet PCs, (such as the iPad eeny, mini, miney or pro), so far. I reject these as travelling companions unless all you want to do is watch films, read ebooks, check web pages and send very simple email messages. Try typing anything longer than a 100-word summary on a touch-screen virtual keyboard and you’ll rapidly realise that this feature is much more labour intensive than a physical keyboard when composing and editing longer texts. You are lacking "haptic feedback" that a key has been pressed correctly, unlike with a physical keyboard when the travel of a key tells your brain the letter has been typed. There is plenty of medical evidence to suggest that forcing your fingers into using a touch-screen keyboard for extended periods results in repetitive strain injury to tiny finger muscles, while "static loading" may be the source of back and shoulder strain.

The iPad won’t run Flash animation at all, so you are out in the cold with many websites, which may even employ Flash for page navigation. Get a proper keyboard (ie: one with keys that move when you depress them) if you want to use a tablet/phablet and are expecting to reply to emails with more than a single sentence or to update multi-line blogs. Most smartphones and tablets support Bluetooth connectivity and you’ll be able to find a light and portable Bluetooth keyboard by shopping around.

Keywords: ultraportable, travel, tablet, Bluetooth, keyboard, network, cell, mobile, phone, sim, vpn

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