VPNs For Secure Networking
Even when a laptop is safe in your hands, there is still the problem of what happens to your data in when it hits a network. Unencrypted wireless access points (and even access points using weak encryption) can broadcast your information to anyone and everyone who is listening. It's then a simple process to use a network sniffer such as Ethereal (recently rebranded as WireShark) or OmniPeek Personal to capture traffic that includes unencrypted login and password information (Figure 3).
Figure 3: The packet-sniffing utility Ethereal (Click to enlarge)
Malicious users can also set up fake access points that can mimic legitimate sites, perpetrating what is commonly known as a 'man-in-the-middle' attack and relieving you of your personal information. It's all enough to drive a person mad.
Fortunately, virtual private networking technology (VPN) allows users to 'tunnel' into a server via an encrypted connection, providing a great deal of communication security even when making use of an insecure connection. VPNs vary in speed and security depending on the implementation. The most common VPN technologies available are IP Security (IPsec), Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), and Layer 2 Transport Protocol (L2TP).
L2TP and IPsec are commonly combined together (as they operate on layers 2 and 3, respectively), with L2TP providing security on the datalink layer and IPsec providing secure authentication on the network layer, though IPsec may be used by itself. PPTP is another available standard, and is significantly easier to set up than IPsec, though it may be broken if a user selects a poor password.
Figure 4: VPN connected notifications in Windows and Mac OS X
Many companies and universities make use of VPNs for their users and certain ISPs and Web hosting providers also offer VPN services to customers. So be sure to look into whether or not your organization or ISP provides VPN access before you depart, as it can save a great deal of heartache along the road.
If you want a cheaper VPN solution, and don't mind a bit of elbow grease and setup time, OpenVPN provides a free way of deploying a VPN on your home network. For an even easier solution, consider setting up your own SSL-based VPN using the "Community" (free) version of SSL Explorer.