Two services that help protect public Wi-Fi users

If you're using your computer away from your home network -- whether in a coffee shop, at the airport or in a hotel room -- chances are pretty good that your wireless network (even your wired network in a hotel room) is unsecure. Tools like Firesheep and Reaver can easily be used by hackers to find out personal information from Wi-Fi users on the same Wi-Fi network -- you may think that the guy three tables over is just checking his email, but he could be stealing your credit-card information or passwords.

While many mobile workers likely have a VPN client to secure their wireless connection while on the road, there's still the issue of people using their own personal computers for work, or for the times when the mobile worker forgets to connect to the work VPN (trust me, many times when I'm traveling I forget to connect to the VPN if I just want to Web surf).

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I recently got to try out two services that aim to bridge this gap for people -- both Private Wi-Fi and proXPN offer customers an easy-to-use VPN client that connects to secure servers, and provides an end-to-end encrypted tunnel that blocks tools like Firesheep from seeing the user's traffic. If you, family members or employees use public Wi-Fi connections when out and about, these are worth checking these out.

Private Wi-Fi can automatically connect and activate itself from startup (or you can activate it manually), connecting to one of its servers from 12 locations around the world. An algorithm can also detect where the closest server is, to improve the Internet connection speed for the end user. The service uses 128-bit encryption and the OpenVPN protocol, and offers a three-day free trial. After that, users pay $9.95 a month (or $84.95 per year, with family plans and corporate discounts also available). The software works with PCs or Macs, and the company says that mobile apps (for iOS devices and Android phones) should be ready next month.

Here's a video that describes Private Wi-Fi:

The second service I tried was proXPN, which offers a free version (no trial) or Premium account ($9.95 per month). The free service limits connection speeds to 300Kbps and only connects via one U.S. location (Dallas), while the Premium account can access seven locations worldwide with "unlimited connection speed." In my tests, this connection speed topped out at about 6Mbps, but that's still better than 300Kbps. The services uses a 512-bit encryption tunnel with a 2048-bit key, and supports OpenVPN and PPTP (Premium) VPN services.

Unlike Private Wi-Fi, you can't tell it to connect to the closest server -- in my test, I was connected to either London or Dallas from my home in Massachusetts, rather than to the New York servers. Kevin Cook, CEO of proXPN, says the service doesn't "geo-target the user to determine the 'best' location, being that our definition of 'best' location may be different than [the end user's]."

A very nice feature of proXPN Premium is the ability to configure your iPad or iPhone to also use the service -- the website offers a good step-by-step process for changing the settings on your phone to enable this. Unfortunately, you can't VPN with your iPhone/iPad at the same time you're using a Mac/PC -- it only allows one account connection at a time -- but Cook says the company is rethinking this policy as it begins its mobile application rollout. He added the company will be rolling out an iOS app in September, and an Android app in October, which will be a lightweight app connecting via PPTP (with OpenVPN plans on devices that support it, including Android 4.0+, at a later date).

The proXPN team also has a good video explaining its service and the problems it solves:

Both services will reduce your Internet connection speeds compared with having an unencrypted traffic stream, mainly because the traffic is redirected to the company servers, as well as the encryption process. In some of my tests the traffic slowdown was dramatic, dropping from an unencrypted 18Mbps to about 5-6Mbps. For regular Web activities like email or regular Web surfing the user will not likely notice this, but if you're doing some heavy lifting like downloading video or uploading large files, this could become an issue.

Both services installed their software easily on my test systems (a couple of MacBook Pro notebooks), and I didn't have any other issues other than the reduced Internet connection speeds.

Choosing between these two, I'd give a slight edge to proXPN for its no-limit free version (albeit at only 300Kbps) and ability to connect via iPhones/iPads. I do like the automatic closest server detection from Private Wi-Fi, however. In both cases, I would likely subscribe to both companies' Premium offering, to get the widest variety of server locations available and the fastest connection speeds.

Both services, however, are worthy offerings, and are recommended for computer users who find themselves connecting a lot at public Wi-Fi locations when they travel.

Grades: Private Wi-Fi: 4 stars; proXPN: 4.5 stars

Shaw can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @shawkeith.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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