So you’ve got your camera, your tablet, and enough sunscreen to keep Cancun cancer free for the entirety of Spring Break. But did you bring your VPN? For travelers, VPNs are fast becoming a necessity as new policies make the internet an increasingly restrictive place.
A few years ago, I would have never written this post, but growing paranoia about data protection has led to a less free web. It seems like the old axiom about exchanging liberty for security holds true even in the digital world as websites shut their doors to the globe to feel just a little bit safer. Unfortunately, this means that if you are traveling overseas be prepared to lose access to more than just your domestic catalog of movies and shows on Netflix. Newspapers, government websites, even online banking can become unavailable depending on your location. Luckily, all this can be avoided for about $10 a month through a VPN.
What is a VPN or Virtual Private Network? Essentially, it is a mask for your IP address. A VPN allows you to connect remotely to a host and surf the web from the host’s location. Thus, websites receive incoming information from the host but not your computer, which can be thousands of miles away.
VPNs have been around for years and were originally used by corporations to securely connect to office databases remotely. They are highly useful in getting around government censorship, like the Great Firewall of China, as well as protecting your data at public WiFi hotspots.
However, today it’s self-censorship that increasingly requires a VPN to avoid. A growing list of companies, government entities, and even charities are banning IP addresses based on geographical location. That means that if you happen to be in say Russia and wish to pay your credit card bill, you may be out of luck unless you have a VPN to spoof the website into thinking you are in a different country.
Why do companies do this? The idea behind geographical bans is to thwart would-be hackers. Countries like Russia are considered high risk. But the thing is, hackers use VPNs too. In fact, they often route their IPs through a vast network of different servers to make it as hard as possible to trace. In reality, this is security theater, and like most security theater it’s the customer that ends up inconvenienced the most.
Moreover, the European Union has also gotten into the act. In order to protect data and privacy, it passed the General Data Protection Regulation (EU) 2016/679, which saw sweeping changes to the way that websites are allowed to collect and use your data. The requirements recently went into effect, and while the spirit of the law may have been well-intentioned, it has placed many smaller companies, especially, those outside of Europe, in the difficult position of giving up revenue to maintain their market presence across the Atlantic. Often these companies have simply banned European IPs altogether to avoid falling afoul of regulators. Many newspapers in the US seem particularly susceptible, and now require a VPN to read, including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.
So do yourself a favor before taking that holiday trip. Get yourself a VPN. There are a number of reliable services to choose from including CyberGhost, HideMyAss, and ExpressVPN. And even if you end up not needing it on your next trip, remember, the fourth season of “Fuller House” will be released on Netflix this December, and you wouldn’t want to be left out just because your are on the wrong continent now, would you?