Why You Need a Virtual Private Network

When my in-laws moved to Bangladesh for their first Foreign Service assignment in 1977, leaving America meant leaving everything–from family to financial institutions–behind.

Back then, people used telegrams, handwritten letters and long-distance phone calls to manage their affairs and to keep in touch with loved ones in the US. Unfortunately, even with home leave to help relieve the cultural isolation overseas, my poor husband seems to have spent a great deal of his adolescence under the impression that “Journey” was very nearly the only band producing cassette tapes in America.

Two decades later, it’s hard to imagine the Foreign Service without access to the Internet. Where would we be without Skype, email, mobile banking, Hulu, or (heaven forbid) Amazon?

Yet, as game-changing as these websites, services, and applications are, few of them are perfectly secure, or even accessible, from overseas. Whether you’re posted to Austria or to Zimbabwe, staying connected abroad to popular US web-based services often requires a few extra steps.

Fortunately for Foreign Service families looking for secure online transactions or access to American entertainment websites, a virtual private network (VPN) subscription and a few simple digital housekeeping tricks are all you need to stay connected.

A VPN subscription is a legal, digital way to securely access the Internet via a remote bank of computer servers located elsewhere in the world. If you are in China, but your VPN provider’s server is in California, then the Internet “thinks” your computer is in California as well. The VPN encrypts all of the data traveling between the VPN servers and your computer, shielding your Internet usage from both hackers and foreign government censors alike.

Large corporations and government entities have used VPN services for years to provide employees with secure, remote access to proprietary software and sensitive data. In fact, the State Department’s OpenNet is an example of a VPN. With a login and password, OpenNet users can access vital programs and files from around the world. As we increasingly use web-based applications to do everything from storing vital documents to watching television, VPN technology has also become a “must-have” for many expatriates.

The first, most obvious, reason for purchasing a home VPN subscription is security. In parts of the world where identity theft is big business, unsecured wireless networks—such as you might use at a coffee shop, or that may be installed in your home–are a boon to would-be malevolent hackers.

A VPN subscription circumvents this risk by altering your computer’s digital address and encrypting its connection to the Internet, rendering your computer essentially “invisible” on an unsecured wireless network. On a relatively fast Internet connection, the encryption process is nearly instantaneous and barely noticeable.

As compelling as digital security may be, most home VPN subscriptions are ultimately motivated not by security, but by the desire to access to popular websites from overseas. It may be called the World Wide Web, but, due to copyright restrictions, many popular web-based services are inaccessible to users outside the United States without a VPN subscription to alter the user’s Internet Protocol (IP) address.

Never mind what your passport says, media-streaming websites like Pandora.com, Hulu.com and Netflix.com are only available to Internet users with an American IP address. Some ebooks face similar overseas licensing and copyright restrictions. Families living in countries with a reputation for widespread credit card fraud may find they cannot access some shopping websites without a VPN subscription.

And, of course, there are some countries, like the People’s Republic of China, in which government censors utilize IP addresses to block reader access to everything from Facebook to ESPN to news sites or even weather reports.

Some people choose to use free web-based VPN programs. A quick Google search will turn up a host of free options such as ProXPN, GPass, and CyberGhost, designed largely to circumvent government censors. Hotspot Shield is a very popular security-focused option that offers a free-with-advertisements VPN download for users that are more concerned with privacy and identity theft prevention. While the price of these services can’t be beat, their efficacy often suffers from slow load times, user overload and constant cat-and-mouse battles with foreign governments seeking to limit their use.

For a single person or tandem couple posted overseas and allowed to use their (VPN-linked) work computers for limited personal use, a free VPN service may be more than adequate for nights and weekends. On the other hand, when one or more family members require unfettered Internet access throughout the day, or if the household desires easy, legal access to American movies, music and TV shows, it is advisable to invest in a paid VPN subscription through a reputable provider. Rates vary depending on the level of service, data encryption and the number of computers connected to the VPN. Providers typically bill annually, with prices ranging from about $12 to $20 per month.

At posts where the host government heavily censors the Internet, Strong VPN and VyperVPN are well-regarded options. I subscribe to a Strong VPN plan and enjoyed minimally disrupted Internet access throughout a two-year tour in China, even as most other VPN services suffered outages. Whichever VPN service you choose, it is a good idea to sign up for it and to install the required software on your computer before leaving the US as some countries censor access to VPN websites and providers.

VPN connections work best with a fast Internet connection, but we can’t all be posted to Singapore, Israel or Bulgaria (the three countries with the fastest Internet connections in the world as of January, 2013). If bandwidth issues in your host country make it difficult to use Skype or stream media files, with or without a VPN, there are a few simple things you can try to improve the speed of your Internet connection.

Power surges and outages wreak havoc on modems, causing Internet speeds to drop dramatically especially after a string of power failures. If your home is prone to frequent power outages, try turning your modem off and on again once power returns. This simple step alone may boost your Internet connection, at least temporarily. If you can, invest in a high-quality modem and use shorter cables to minimize the distance the signal has to travel.

While connecting to a wireless network is one of the most convenient ways to access the Internet, it is rarely the fastest, especially in countries in which homes are built out of signal-sucking concrete blocks. Try using an ethernet cable to connect your computer directly to your modem instead. A high-quality ethernet connection will almost always be faster than a wireless connection.

Living at hardship posts often means combatting far more dust, dirt and grime than we are used to in the US. This dirt doesn’t just make it difficult to keep the house clean, it can also affect the efficacy of your computer equipment. Use cans of compressed air and a regular dusting routine on your modem, routers and computers to help enhance performance and internet speeds. While you’re at it, make sure to keep your computers digitally “clean” as well by clearing browsing histories and cookies and running antivirus and antispyware programs regularly. This simple step allows your web browser to make better use of whatever bandwidth is available in your area.

Password-protect your wireless network and limit the number of devices connected to it. Smartphones, e-readers, tablets, iPods and similar devices often automatically connect to your wireless network whether you need them to or not. Simply turning off the wireless connection on these devices while reading ebooks, listening to downloaded music, or playing offline games, will greatly improve the Internet speed on other devices in your home.

If streaming web content continues to be difficult after trying the above tips, try downloading instead of streaming television shows, music and movies from websites such as iTunes and Amazon, instead of streaming them. (With a VPN subscription, it is possible to access not just US-based but also British, European and other media sites as well.)

If your landline-based network is unusably slow, investing in a local cellular data plan may be another way to increase your access. Cellphone networks are more reliable than landlines in many regions around the world.

If you don’t have space for additional media files on your hard drive or if you would rather not store downloaded files on your personal computer, “cloud-based” services allow users to access movies, television shows and music remotely. Putlocker.com is an especially popular option for users seeking to store media files on the web and other sites like SugarSync, Amazon’s Cloud Drive and Apple’s iCloud are also helpful for accessing media files across a variety of mobile devices.

With a VPN subscription, cloud storage and some regular computer maintenance, it’s easier than ever to take advantage of everything the Internet has to offer, no matter where in the world you are.

Danielle Dumm is a traveling, writing, shutterbug Mama for whom home is wherever her FSO husband and son are–currently New Delhi, India. When not exploring Delhi, making a mess in the kitchen or editing photos, you can find her blogging about parenthood abroad at http://www.hotpotdc.wordpress.com and all things India at http://www.danielledumm.com.

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