What you will read here will change the way you use your laptop while on the road. Okay, that’s probably too optimistic of me, but being an avid laptop user, I try to keep abreast of technologies and trends, especially when it comes to being connected while on the go. I should–I write about laptops, and I often find myself at public WiFi hotspots doing some work or just catching up on email.
Two things keep popping up in my list of needs when connecting on the go: security and connectivity with the home front.
Security. Public hotspots are usually open access points that do not offer any level of security at all. Not WPA. No, not even WEP. The idea is for the hotspot to be as accessible to as many people as possible. So this means the lowest common denominator in terms of security–no encryption.
Also, even commercial hotspots tend to be unsecured, so they can support as many clients as possible, most of whom wouldn’t know a thing about even entering a short piece of code onto their WiFi managers in order to connect.
Problem: You turn on your email client and chances are, your email username and password are being sent over the network in clear, unencrypted text everytime you poll for messages. Anyone with a packet sniffer running on the network can get your password in less than thirty seconds. And even if you’re using secure http (https, say, in Gmail), not all of the sites you are browsing are using a secure connection. The websites you’re reading are available for someone else on the network to read, with the right tools.
Connectivity. Don’t you just love the fact that on your home or office network, you can store all your files on one computer and then you can share them across your different computers? I mean, I certainly wouldn’t want to have duplicate copies of all the documents I’m currently working on, especially if I constantly shift from working on the desktop, to my main laptop, and then sometimes to another laptop.
Problem: You’ve just arrived at a meeting venue when you realize you left some important presentation documents at your office desktop. You end up having to call someone from the office (or mom, the wifey, or the kids back at home) to email over the files you forgot to copy on your laptop.
The Solutions: Virtual Private Networking
Setting up a VPN might sound daunting at first, but it doesn’t have to be. A VPN doesn’t have to be an expensive enterprise solution installed and maintained by an office IT department. It can be as simple as installing two small pieces of free software, tweaking some configurations, and voila! You’re all set to conquer the mobile realms!
My picks: iPIG and Hamachi.
Secure Connections Thru iPIG
iPIG, or iOpus Private Internet Gateway is an application that creates a secure tunnel from your computer (point A) to their server (point B), which then connects to your desired Internet-at-large services (point C). This means you are essentially connecting via their network so any point from your laptop, which is point A, to their network, point B, is secure.
iPig creates a secure “tunnel” that protects your inbound and outbound communications (Email, Web, IM, VOIP, calls, FTP, etc.) at any Wi-Fi hotspot or wired network. iPig works with any kind of Internet connection (Wifi, WLAN, wired ethernet). iPIG shields your data from even the most sophisticated methods of online spying and snooping like the “Evil twin attacks”.
Connections from their VPN server to the Internet (point C) may or may not be secure, but the problem of opening your packets to be sniffed by anyone on the public WiFi network is solved. All network traffic flowing thru your wireless connection is transmitted and received using 256-bit AES encryption (basically what WPA uses), which takes more than your garden variety brute-force attacking software to crack.
Installation is simple:
- Download the iPig client.
- Sign up for a free account (which lets you run the service thru their server)
- Input your account details on your iPig client and then activate the connection.
The free iPig account lets you transfer up to 4 GB. If you run out, no problem! Just sign up using a different email account. Hey, 4GB of downloads is probably enough for a couple of month’s worth of trips to the WiFi-enabled cafe.
If you feel safer tunneling through your own office or home connection, you can also purchase iPig’s server edition, which lets your “roaming” computers tunnel through their wired or wireless connections and connect to the Internet-at-large through your office connection, which is presumably safer and more secure than just any open ISP. Or, you can try out the free express server edition, which supports up to five clients.
LAN-like Sharing with Hamachi
Hamachi, on the other hand, is also a VPN application that lets you connect to any computer in your Hamachi network as if they were on a single wired local area network.
In other words Hamachi is a program that allows you to arrange multiple computers into their own secure network just as if they were connected by a physical network cable.
Virtually any application that works over local/home networks can also be used over Hamachi networks.
Think – Windows File Sharing, iTunes, Remote Desktop, Remote Assistance or even gaming – all fully encrypted, authenticated and peer-to-peer.
This is particularly useful if you’re fond of sharing files across the network, including music, videos, and other documents. You can actually share your files to other members of your network via the Internet, and it would seem as if you’re connected on the very same LAN! You are only onstrained by the limitations of your ISP’s bandwidth.
In fact, one great thing about Hamachi is that you can create a network that you can use with your friends and colleagues from any location to share files. It would be just like being in one big LAN where Windows SMB shares abound (okay, technical term here, but that’s what “shared folders” are technically called, particularly from the Linux and Mac end of the computing spectrum).
Installing Hamachi is also a breeze.
- Download the Hamachi client.
- Once you install the client, you will be asked to either create a network or join an existing one.
- You can then browse the shared folders or chat with existing clients connected to your network (by bringing up the context menu when you right-click on their name). Each client is also assigned an “IP address,” which can be used when playing games or where direct TCP/IP access to that particular machine is needed, such as using VNC for remote-control, or playing network games.
- Do this with each computer you use or ask your colleagues to do the same. Be sure to join the same network.
- You can also sign up for a management account at my.hamachi.cc where you can sign up your clients and networks for easy monitoring.
Hamachi basically creates a virtual network adapter that is assigned its own “IP address.” You can then create a new virtual network or join an existing one. The creator gets to assign a password that each other node wishing to connect has to key in. So, for example, I create a network named “blaptops” and use the password “test.” I can invite my fellow writers to join so we can share documents, and I would need to give them the network name to join and the network password to key in to gain access.
What’s even better is that Hamachi has a built-in chat client, so you can talk to other connected nodes on the network.
This is probably one good way to implement a simple peer-to-peer network. Be warned, though, that you should only connect with people you actually know, because your computer’s local shared folders and files will be vulnerable to being read. If you’ve set your permissions to writeable, then other nodes on the network can save files on your computer or even alter your documents’ content via the Hamachi network.
Why iPig and Hamachi?
The foremost reason I recommend and actually use these products is that they’re very secure. They’re also very free.
I think people roaming at public hotspots shouldn’t be left in the dark about their security when connecting in the public, and the ability to connect back home while away from their physical networks. Laptop users should enjoy being connected while on the go. With this should come the feeling of being safe and secure, without necessarily being left out as disconnected islands of information.