Using VPNs to protect your privacy

We’ve all seen the depths to which governments across the world will go to get their grubby little hands on your private data. Often illegally!

The Prism surveillance program, XKeyscore & the recently mooted Australia metadata retention program are all cases in point. Yep, that’s Australia’s elected Attorney General there!

If you think that the spooks and federal, state & local police aren’t trawling through your information without a warrant (Canada, Romania, France, US) then quite frankly you are a moron and you shouldn’t be allowed to use the Internet.

So what can you do to protect yourself?

Most decent routers allow you to establish Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that encrypt your data and then send that data to somewhere else on the planet.

Without a VPN your data leaves your PC, goes through your router to your ISP and pops out in your own country and this is where your local spooks and cops are slurping up your data for analysis.

With a VPN the data that they slurp up is gibberish. It’s encrypted which makes it difficult (but not impossible mind you) for them to read.

How to setup a VPN?

This all depends on the capabilities of your router. There are 4 or so major VPN “standards” and you’ll need a router that supports one of more of them.

OpenVPN

OpenVPN is an open source project that implements a quite robust VPN protocol and it is supported by pretty much every VPN provider on the planet. Quite easy to setup and keep running. Downside is that you normally need to install a special firmware (DD-WRT or Tomato) on your router to get this capability and not all routers support this special firmware.

IPSEC

IPSEC is an Internet standard for the encryption and authentication of the data packets on the Internet. There are slightly different variants depending on whether you’re doing site-to-site VPNs or setting up a teleworker to dial into your network.

A very secure protocol but can be a hassle to setup correctly due to the number of knobs that can be tweaked. Things like NAT can cause you much grief.

L2TP/IPSEC

L2TP by itself does not give you encryption so is pretty much useless by itself for protecting your communications. But when L2TP is coupled with IPSEC you end up with a relatively good level of security for your Internet communications.

L2TP/IPSEC is a good trade off of simplicity and capability.

PPTP

PPTP is NOT considered secure anymore. Do not use unless you absolutely have to and nothing too confidential is flowing through the VPN. Probably OK for torrenting.

Are all VPN providers created equal?

In a word NO!

The technical capabilities of the VPN provider, the support experience and network speed all come into play when selecting a provider. You might also be concerned with how you can pay for your VPN – some providers allow you to pay with anonymous gift cards if you’re that paranoid.

I recently upgraded to a Draytek Vigor 2860 router. I’ve been quite impressed with it in the short time I’ve been using it. The 2860 supports dial-out VPNs, load balancing & failover VPNs, and policy based routing that allows you to select what data goes out via the VPN and what data go out direct to your ISP. You have have upto 32 VPNs configured.

During my travels I’ve seen that VPNs don’t all live up to their marketing hype. While all the providers below say on their webpage that they support “L2TP/IPSEC” your results can vary widely. For example, 2 of the providers below will quite happily establish an L2TP/IPSEC connection without the encryption turned on! Completely useless as a VPN to protect your identity and information.

VPN Provider Supports L2TP/IPSEC Support Quality Comments
Witopia Yes, with AES encryption I've only needed to use support once and it was fast and efficent Downside is that technically you're not allowed to setup Witopia VPNs on routers.
NordVPN Yes, with AES encryption Worked straightaway - have had no reason to speak to support yet Great so far - highly recommended
Private Internet Access Yes, but NO ENCRYPTION Poor and slow. Their L1 support staff are useless. They skim through the e-mail and then cut and paste an answer that doesn't help Avoid at all costs
Proxy.sh Yes, but NO ENCRYPTION Poor and slow - a question that I placed 7 days ago still hasn't been answered or acknowledged. Avoid at all costs
Kepard Yes, with AES encryption Worked straightaway - have had no reason to speak to support yet Great so far - highly recommended

My advice

Try your chosen VPN provider before you make a long term commitment to them. Some offer a couple of days for a dollar or 2 while others will need you to commit for a month at around $10.

Try to setup the VPN on your router. I can assure you that you’ll probably have problems in the first instance so hit up support early and often to you can gauge the type of response you’ll get ongoing.

My suggestions

From my tests I’d suggest Kepard and NordVPN. Witopia would be up there if their T&Cs allowed you to host the VPN on your router.

In no way, shape or form would I suggest anyone use Private Internet Access or Proxy.sh if they needed a L2TP/IPSEC VPN on their router – life is too short to have to deal with incompetent help desks.

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Ba Dao Guan, Chinatown, Singapore

In the middle of the hustle and bustle of Singapore’s Chinatown area is a great little restaurant called Ba Dao Guan or SiChuan Seafood Restaurant. Don’t let the name put you off if you’re not a seafood fan as there is a lot of non-seafood dishes on the menu.

I’d been to this restaurant a couple of times before on my previous visits to Singapore, so when I found myself looking for somewhere to rehydrate and get out of the searing midday I knew I’d be in for a good feed.

And, most importantly, you can get a long neck of frosty cold Tiger beer for the bargain price of S$6.95. You can’t get much better than that in Singapore.

Not being a seafood fan I opted for a couple of old classics. On my first visit I had a very good freshly cooked Roast Duck Curry and rice. For my second meal here a week or so later I chose Spicy Beef, Lemongrass & Kaffir Lime Leaves and it was magnificent.

If you’re in Singapore’s Chinatown you must pop in for a meal and cold, cold beer. If you’re not in Chinatown you know how cheap the Singapore taxis are so you have no reason not to grab a meal here!

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Brotzeit, Raffles City, Singapore

Brotzeit, it apparently means Bread Time, but in Singapore is a chain of Bavarian themed bars and restaurants.

Being Bavarian in theme you can guess what the menu looks like – Bavarian beers and lots of types of meats.

Being close to my hotel, well, it was in the same complex as the Swissotel Stamford, it was just easy to head down for a beer and feed a couple of times during my recent stay.

The tap beers are all Paulaner and there’s normally 4 on tap – a Pilsner, a Lager, a Dark Lager and a wheat malt. They’re all a welcome respite from the heat and humidity despite the price! Yes, beer in Singapore can be very expensive if you’re in a touristy area and they don’t have decent Happy Hour prices. But the prices don’t deter people from drinking here – in the early evening it’s almost standing room only.

Foodwise, there’s a selection of Bavarian and non-Bavarian dishes that are very tasty, freshly cooked and of reasonable size. Think schnitzels, sausages, burgers and pizzas.

A good, solid restaurant with a good menu, ambience and location.

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Gayatri, Race Course Road, Singapore

After a very hot and steamy morning walking around Singapore’s Muslim Quarter at Kampong Glam and then Little India a quick TripAdvisor search pointed me to a close by Indian restaurant called Gayatri.

Gayatri is a largish restaurant on Race Course Road, not too far from the Mustafa Centre or Little India MRT station.

I got there earlyish at around 11:30am but I wasn’t the first there.

The traditional paper menu that was at the door was replaced inside by a Samsung tablet which was not overly intuitive to use, and in fact I had to resort to asking the waitress to order for me.

I ordered a Chicken 65 and Butter Chicken, which turned out to be quite decent in size, along with a Garlic Naan. My order came out very quickly which make me think that some of the food is prepared in advance and served out of a bain-marie rather than cooked fresh for each order.

Taste wise the meal was quite good but could have been a little more spicy.

All that said, there’s a plethora of good food options in the area, so next time I think I’ll try another restaurant.

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Internet Forum Trolls – it’s my problem apparently!

I luckily don’t deal with too many trolls… but when you do its makes your blood boil, especially so when the forum admins condone the utterly reprehensible behaviour.

The background was that I’d bought a new Logitech Harmony Ultimate (which gives you a Harmony Ultimate Hub and a Harmony Touch universal remote). About 3 weeks after I bought it it failed with the LED on the HUB flashing red and the unit was unresponsive until is was restarted. I thought this was a glitch so restarted the Hub & Remote and it fixed itself.

The problem was only fixed for a little while until it returned.

When the Hub & Remote failed again I decided to see if this was a problem for only myself or was a wider problem. I went to the Logitech support forums and noted that I wasn’t the only person with the problem. Indeed I think I was post number 6 with atleast 4 people saying they were having similar problems.

Given this it seemed to be a known problem (and as of now we have ~30 people with similar issues) I decided to post to the forum with a “me too” in hope of help.

Things went slow for a while. It appears that even though these are the Logitech support forums they don’t seen to actively monitor the forums… what a FAIL!!!! I resorted to a Twitter poke and a post to our local Whirlpool forums to get some action.

After the Twitter prod we got some focus on the issue from Logitech and also from some Logitech support forum troll called “rhachey“. Rhachey seems to be one of those people who think that their worth in life if dictated by the number of posts (on topic or not) that they write on the internet regardless of whether those posts are useful or on topic.

What made me fume more was that the idiot posted pretty much saying “I haven’t bothered to read what you wrote BUT what is your problem?”. Mind you this was on page 3 of the forum so there were no more than 20 posts describing various people’s problems but the troll couldn’t be bothered reading the onerous number of posts describing the problems but, apparently loving the sound of his own voice, they had to respond to the thread with posts that added ZERO value.

I admit that in my response I “went the troll” and that got pulled up by the admins. Here is the exchange!

Them with the title “Keep it Courteous”

Your post was removed because it violated the “Keep it courteous” section of the User Guidelines.

Everyone wants to have a positive experience while on the Forums – please make sure that you are not detracting from any other user’s experience. In particular, please refrain from posting anything unlawful, libelous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, indecent, lewd, harassing, threatening, harmful, invasive of privacy or publicity rights, abusive, inflammatory or otherwise objectionable or injurious to third parties. Your opinions are always welcome, but personal attacks and harassment in the Forum, including through the Forums private messaging system, are not acceptable.

Thanks for your help in keeping the community a friendly, productive environment for all members.

OK, maybe I over stepped the mark so I responded to the admin

OK, I’ll keep it courteous… but that other guy is just a troll!

Apparently not

rhachey is not a troll and has helped hundreds of people on these forums.

OK, so this troll (and I still think they’re a troll) has over 15,000 posts on a support forums as a NON PAID participant and has helped, in the admin’s words, “hundreds” of people… that’s still the best part of 14,000 posts that have not “helped” people. I interpreted the trolls post as non helpful in my particular case in my response to the admin.

Well, in this case he is NOT helping, and he has admitted he didn’t bother to read the thread before responding and his posts are adding ZERO value to the discussion. That’s a troll in anyones book.

For everyone’s sake please tell him to stay out of this thread as it doesn’t concern him.

Well, here’s where the Logitech forum admins lose the plot… apparently it’s MY problem for posting the problem! WTF!!!

You came to this site looking for help, I suggest you accept what help is given and be respectful about it. As rhachey stated, too often people hijack a thread and to read through a complete thread everytime to see if it actually has something to do with that thread can consume a lot of time.

I think the Logitech forums admins finally got it when I responded as they’ve not got back to me yet

Yes, I came looking for help, not posts of ZERO value and admissions of people who respond haven’t even bothered to read the short (3 pages) of posts for the problem before they reply with a useless non response.

 Oh well, it looks like the other guy is a protected species and is seems post quantity rather than post quality is what counts… ok, I’ll play by your rules.

Why do multinational, multi Billion dollar companies, allow trolls on their support forums to hijack legitimate support requests and why do these same companies allow their forum admins to become beholden to forum trolls who’s only rasion d’etre is to to increase their forums post counts?

NEWSFLASH morons – no one cares how many posts you’ve had on a random internet forum! Get out of your mother’s basement. Met some people. Do some stuff. Travel. It’s very sad that your existence is defined by the fact that you’ve written over 15,000 posts in a support forum for company that doesn’t even pay you!

Logitech – pull your forums admins into line and tell them to keep the forums trolls (and post number sluts) under control. Your products are decent but you need to stop your forum admins and random internet fuckups hurting your own brand!

And fix the problems with your Logitech Harmony Ultimate (Harmony Ultimate Hub and a Harmony Touch universal remote) as you’ve got alot off pissed of customers!

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