Last month I wrote about using a rented VPN (Virtual Private Network) service to provide encryption for everything you do on the Internet (see Defending against insecure hotel networks with a VPN). The need for a VPN on a wireless WiFi network is pretty obvious, but, as I wrote, it is equally important for anyone who travels, as there are a number of ways to be spied on when you use a wired connection in a hotel room. I mentioned two companies that rent VPN service, Witopia and HotSpotVPN.
A reader left an interesting follow-up comment:
"I like the idea of using a VPN service, especially since WiFi is provided with my apartment and I don't want my landlord virtually snooping around. But which of the two is a better service? I like Witopia's price because I could afford to buy an account for each of my computers. How does HotspotVPN justify the higher price. Also, I can't find any information on either as to the information they keep about my surfing habits, marketing data, etc. Why should I trust either of these companies more than my landlord, a hotel, or Starbucks?"
I ran this question by each company and their responses are below. First, some background on pricing and services.
Both companies offer an SSL based VPN for a yearly fee.
The Witopia service is called PersonalVPN, the HotSpotVPN service is called HotSpotVPN-2. Witopia charges $40/year and uses 128 bit encryption using the Blowfish cipher. HotSpotVPN charges $109 for similar 128 bit Blowfish encryption and more for higher grades of encryption.
In his Security Now podcast, Steve Gibson said the lowest level of encryption from HotSpotVPN is sufficient. On this subject, Witopia's website says "Depending on other factors, higher levels of encryption may simply bog down your processor without providing the security you might think."
Both companies also offer PPTP based VPN service, thrown in when you purchase their SSL based VPN. I'm no expert on the technical differences between the two types of VPNs, but SSL is more secure whereas PPTP can often be used without installing software. Both companies note that PPTP is the only type of VPN supported on an Apple iPhone.
HotSpotVPN offers a stand-alone PPTP based VPN service, Witopia does not. Being techies, they gave it the imaginative name HotSpotVPN-1. Quoting their website: "HotSpotVPN-1 is perfect for the infrequent traveler because it is available in 1,3, and 7 day increments for only $3.88, $5.88, and $6.88 respectively." On a yearly basis, HotSptVPN-1 is $89.
Addressing the reader comment, Bill Bullock, President of Witopia says:
"These are good and fair questions. I can't comment too much on HotspotVPN's pricing model, but as far as we know, WiTopia's PPTP + openVPN SSL bundle is technically identical to HotspotVPN's PPTP and openVPN SSL bundle...at least as far as the protocols offered. I hear they offer a fine service and have a loyal following. It may just be a difference in strategic approach to the market.
We believe the personal VPN market will experience huge growth as people become increasingly concerned about security and privacy online. The move to mobility is also key here as although it isn't a bad idea to use a VPN at home for privacy, when you connect at hotspots or "networks not your own" a VPN is a necessity. Although the need is clear, there is a learning curve as there was with anti-virus and firewalls.
When we were at UUNET, we gained a "religious zeal" for building massively scalable and repeatable UNIX-based architectures that can take a beating. We built personalVPN to scale easily, inexpensively, and be rock-solid reliable as you would expect from UNIX systems.
So, with a huge potential market, the technical ability to scale to the moon while keeping costs low and service level high, we thought a really aggressive price was the best way to capture market share. The folks buying VPNs now are likely the technical ones in their family or circle of friends so they understand the value of a VPN service and will help us spread the word if we treat them right and the price is fair. It's already happening.
As far as trust, that is a valid point. You need to trust your VPN provider. Not only their philosophy, but their technical prowess. There are a lot of new entrants in the market now with "sketchy" approaches, and many others seem to be single-server shops that may unknowingly make errors compromising your data as they try to scale. I would hope that any established VPN company that has a track record and has been covered positively on the Internet by customers and the press is a safe bet. What needs to be understood, is that our livelihood depends on keeping you safe and honoring your privacy. If we ever compromised that, unwillingly or with bad intent, I would imagine word would get out pretty fast. I can say that here at WiTopia, we take it very very seriously."
Glynn Taylor President of WiFiConsulting, the company behind HotSpotVPN says:
"Our higher price reflects that you will get two vpn's for the price of one. You will get an openVPN VPN and a PPTP VPN for your iPhone or whatever you want to run it on. Also we have a boatload of bandwidth that is intelligently biased towards VOIP. I think we also offer higher encryption than most."
Serious techies take another approach altogether. They have computers running all the time that run VPN server software. For a secure Internet connection, they phone home (so to speak) and surf the Internet from the wired connection at their home base, be it a home, office or a rented server.
Whichever approach/company you use, the time really has come for VPNs to be added to the list of standard defensive software for everyone using the Internet.
Update. March 15, 2008: For more on this see A VPN debate: WiTopia and HotSpotVPN