02 February 2015
A while back, I ran across an article (which for the life of me I can’t find now) in which the author meets with a computer hacker at a public location—a Starbucks coffee shop—and demonstrates the surprising amount of information he can collect by intercepting the traffic between the Starbucks public wifi and the locally connected customers. It is truly scary!
If your Mac or iOS devices connect to public wifi networks, you can protect yourself by using a VPN (virtual private network) service. When activated, a VPN service running on your device will access the internet through an encrypted connection to the VPN provider’s servers; basically creating an encrypted “tunnel” through which all your internet traffic securely travels.
There are other reasons for using a VPN service as well. When accessing the internet through a VPN, your IP address will correspond to that of the VPN provider’s server. People use this feature to both hide their geographic location, and to “spoof” their location to access geographically-fenced content and services. For example, commercial services like Netflix, as well as certain features of my online banking interface, are only available to US-based IP addresses. Such restricted content is accessible from abroad when connected to the internet via a US-based VPN server.
On my devices, I actually run two paid VPN services, and the rest of this article explains why.
Cloak, from a user-experience point of view, is the perfect VPN service for anyone accustomed to traditional Apple ease-of-use. (Which is quite surprising, when you learn it was created by former Microsoft engineers!)
When it came to market, Cloak made two big advances with respect to all other products at the time.
That second feature is really important. For reasons I’ll discuss below, I had to connect to a hotel wifi in Gibraltar this week using a different VPN service, which involved a couple of moments of being connected without VPN security. Of course, apps on my Mac are continually making connections to the internet, and just a few moments after being exposed to that hotel network, I got an email from Google alerting me to a suspicious login attempt on a private Gmail address I use (which is secured with two-factor authentication.) Could be coincidence, but who knows!
So Cloak makes it dead-easy to use a VPN, and best of all doesn’t require you to remember to enable it.
Cloak offers subscription plans and one-off access coupons to fit pretty much any budget. I pay $10 per month for the unlimited plan, since I am frequently connected to public wifi networks and don’t want to think about whether I’ve exhausted a data transfer limit. And that one subscription protects all my devices.
If Cloak is near perfect, why would I run a second VPN service? There are two reasons:
Private Internet Access claim to be one of the world’s biggest, most popular, most private and most secure VPN services, and offer servers in virtually ever corner of the world.
From a user-experience point of view, you can see they don’t hold a candle to Cloak:
No control to close the window; just a “Save” button. And I won’t scare you by revealing what’s behind that “Advanced” button!
The biggest downside to PIA is that it doesn’t offer the network-dependent auto-connect feature of Cloak.
On the other hand, there’s a lot to like about PIA:
So in conclusion, if you connect to public wifi networks, you need to use a VPN service. Cloak provides a great user experience, and just as importantly, is designed to work even when you forget you need it. For most people, it will be the perfect solution. If you travel around enough to run into those rare situations in which Cloak has issues, Private Internet Access is a great backup alternative.