There was always a need for some users to remain anonymous on the Internet. They don’t want their identity to be known. I don’t really care what those “needs” are but you get the point. One of the biggest determining factors on tracking who did what on the big wide Internet world is by something called an IP address. If you researched about anonymous internet surfing before, you’d no doubt come across something called an IP address each and every time. Everyone of us, and yes that includes you reading this article right now, has a different IP address that uniquely defines our presence on the web. This IP address gets assigned to you by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), which is the company that routes your Internet data to the web such as Verizon, Oceanic Cable, Comcast, Clear, Earthlink and the likes. Here’s what you have to understand. Every time you visit a website or pretty much whatever it is you do, your IP address is needed to communicate with that resource. In many of these instances, your IP address might actually get recorded or archived.
So why should we worry about trying to be anonymous on the Internet? The answer is you don’t have to. Honestly. The old saying is if you didn’t do anything wrong, why should you hide or be afraid? Let’s ask ourselves why should we care if Microsoft found out we visited our Hotmail account on specific day or why Google should care as much that we searched for alternative search engines? The reason is we shouldn’t. But what about other things such as accessing a website on how to make bombs or how to hack the government computers? Well, that’s certainly a different story! But the saying still goes that if you don’t do anything bad on the Internet, you really shouldn’t worry all that much about remaining anonymous. So, what the heck is this article for?
There are other uses for remaining anonymous on the Internet even if you have nothing to hide. One of those main reason is none other than security related! Don’t think about when you’re connected to your home network. Think about times where you connected to a public Wi-Fi hotspot or any other network that was not your own. How do you know that network is not being snooped by strangers? For example, Starbucks and McDonalds offer free Wi-Fi connections for their customers in an attempt to bring in more business. Because anyone is allowed to connect to that hotspot, what makes you so sure that the guy sitting way back in the room isn’t actively running some sort of packet sniffer to sniff your data?
Hotspot Shield to the Rescue
One of my favorite security tool used when accessing public networks has got to be Hotspot Shield. This nifty utility not only allows you to access the web via a different IP address but it also creates a secure virtual private network (think of a tunnel) between your computer and their servers. This basically defeats the middleman (guy sitting by himself at the back of Starbucks) trying to sniff your data even on a open Wi-Fi connection because they can’t penetrate that tunnel. Website requests that you make route to Hotspot Shield’s servers rather than where it was originally intended for, which in most cases would be the ISP of the network. Think of Hotspot Shield as our trusted middleman. Requests we make would go to their servers and then they re-route that request to the actual destination using a different IP address than what we had originally. The request is granted and is routed back to Hotspot Shield’s servers. Hotspot Shield then finally routes it back to us. The process continues until the connection to Hotspot Shield is closed. The process I’ve just described relates to how many proxy servers work in general.
How to UseYou can download Hotspot Shield from here. I’ve read that Hotspot Shield imposes a 3 gigabyte bandwidth limit per user, per month.
Once installed, you should see a red shield icon in your system tray. This indicates that Hotspot Shield is not enabled and that your Internet traffic is flowing as usual to your ISP. To check if Hotspot Shield indeed works, I suggest you find out your current IP address by visiting this website. Note your current address.
To enable Hotspot Shield, simply right-click on the icon and select the Connect/ON option. Hotspot Shield will begin work right away by opening a new page on whatever default browser you are using at the moment. It will let you know the steps it’s performing such as assigning you an IP address and whatnot. Once the request has been completed, Hotspot Shield will then take you to their home page and from then on, your data will be routed through to them.
Once connected, you’ll also notice that the Hotspot Shield icon now turns to green to properly reflect its status. You can check on your status at anytime, such as your current VPN address being used and how much amount of data has been routed through Hotspot Shield, by simply right-clicking on the icon and selecting Properties. Next, click on the Details link and you’ll see the appropriate data.
Simply revisit the website I’ve shown earlier to find out your current IP address. It should have changed since activating Hotspot Shield.
Another method to test Hotspot Shield is by using a built-in Windows command line utility called Tracert. This handy utility allows us to trace the route a packet takes to its destination. Below, you’ll see two pictures. The first is shown the places my packet will travel to to get to Google.com without Hotspot Shield enabled. The second picture shows what happens with Hotspot Shield enabled. You can clearly see the first few entries of the second picture that my packet took a completely different route than the first. It seems as if it completely bypassed my default ISP routers/servers to get to the same destination. (Click them to enlarge)
To deactivate Hotspot Shield, simply right-click on the green shield icon and select Disconnect/Off. In the resulting webpage that follows, click on the big red Disconnect button and that should do it. The icon will then return to the red color and your traffic will flow as usual to your original ISP.
A friend of mine travels a lot. I remember him begging me to help him access his Facebook account while in a certain country, which blocked access to that site. I recommended to him Hotspot Shield and it worked like a charm. In the country he was in, the government I’m sure banned all of the IP addresses belonging to their country from accessing Facebook. Because Hotspot Shield’s servers resides elsewhere and the government didn’t put a ban limiting access to that service, my friend was able to access Facebook once he enabled Hotspot Shield. Of course, I warned him not to brag in public or let any government official see him accessing the site because he might get arrested or who knows what. Point is, a proxy server can help bypass these limitations.
Have you ever stumbled across a online service where it discontinued your access to that service if you’ve been using it after a certain amount of time? A good example of this is from a online video service called Megavideo. They allow regular users to watch 72 minutes of videos and after that, force them to wait a certain amount of time before being able to continue. That or pay for a premium membership. How do that they do? Well, of course by IP address! Hotspot Shield immediately eliminated the “waiting” and allows the user to resume watching. After their 72 minutes is up on the Hotspot Shield IP address, they simply deactivate it and continue watching back on their original IP and so on. Clever but of course, my advice is if you love a service, then pay for it!
Cautions When Using a Proxy
It’s very easy for me to write about how awesome Hotspot Shield is. But there still lies a very important question that needs to be asked: How can we trust Hotspot Shield with our data?” My answer is you can’t. Therefore, you must use Hotspot Shield along with any other proxy service at your own risk. Surely there must be some people behind the scenes working for Hotspot Shield. Can we really trust them? Remember, our data has to go somewhere in order to reach its destination. Just because you want to visit a website doesn’t actually make the website appear on your screen as soon as you hit enter. A lot of things happen in the background, especially the route a packet takes from your computer to the ultimate destination. My advice stays the same as always. If your business can be put on hold, then do it. Is it really that important for you to buy that item on Amazon while on Starbuck’s open Wi-Fi network (even with Hotspot Shield enabled) than if you waited half an hour till you got home? Is it really that important that you check your banking statement using a public hotspot you’ve just connected to as opposed to doing it at home at a later time? I assure you your bills will still be there!
In the End…
The reason I vouch for Hotspot Shield as opposed to other proxy services is mainly due to speed and how it seamlessly integrates with Windows. With other proxy services, you usually access them via a web page. These are useful for viewing static sites and whatnot but once you need to watch videos or perform other tasks on that website, it can become difficult. Hotspot Shield doesn’t really affect the way you browse the web once it’s enabled. You’ll see advertisements but that can easily be taken care of by a ad-blocking software. Because your data is routed elsewhere, it makes sense that your browsing speed be hindered. While I noticed this for the many proxy services I have tried, especially when trying to download a larger file, Hotspot Shield remained relatively fast. This alone makes me recommend the product to other users who are looking for a security solution when accessing public hotspots.