Thwarting the great firewall

If you regularly travel to China you'll know accessing many websites can be tricky. A VPN is one way to ensure you can still communicate.

When travelling overseas business executives need to stay connected to their email accounts, keep track of industry news and use social media. But if you're travelling to China, Saudi Arabia or another authoritarian regime, you'll need a virtual private network (VPN) to bypass state censorship restrictions which hinder accessing parts of the internet.

If you haven’t arranged reliable primary and backup VPN access for use during the trip then it's likely you won’t be able to communicate effectively.

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There is a great research paper on the CISCO website detailing what a VPN is, the simplest definition being “a private network constructed within a public network infrastructure, such as the global internet”.

In essence a VPN acts as a private secured pipe inside the internet access method being used such as 3G/4G, Cable, ADSL etc in order to try to thwart industrial espionage snooping, avoid packet inspection, bypass blocks on searches for specific words and connecting to blacklisted internet sites/IP addresses etc.

Officially the Chinese government has told western media such as Bloomberg that “there have never been any issues involving the access of legitimate VPN services that are used by companies to enhance security”.

However China appears to periodically disrupt VPN’s to discourage use by its own citizens who are trying to practice free speech, organise pro-democracy protests, or spread the word about government corruption.

Dr Matthew Berryman, senior research fellow at the University of Wollongong told Technology Spectator the sites you can/can't access in China vary from place to place. There are sometimes fewer restrictions in places where foreigners go, for example hotels catering to Westerners.

Berryman warns that “services like VPNs or TOR [an anonymity service] must be setup and tested before you go. Good luck searching for instructions when ‘VPN’ keywords and the web sites for creating accounts are blocked”.

He also notes that VPNs are generally tolerated more than TOR but are often also blocked or disrupted, so Australians should do their homework before travelling as to which VPN services are working at the time and have backup services ready.

Jeremy Sedley often travels to China for business trips regarding the manufacturing of consumer electronics brands that he distributes in Australia.

Sedley says he prefers to use the Witopia VPN service (which has an annual cost of $US49.99) through the Australian VPN application Viscosity ($US9) on his laptop while overseas so he can monitor internet discussions about his brands and answer customer queries sent to him via his corporate Twitter account and Facebook page.

Commercial VPN services like Witopia work on all major new versions of computing and smartphone platforms that support VPN’s such as Mac OSX, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Apple iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) and Android (phones, tablets etc).

Another Australian businessperson (who requested anonymity as they live for part of the year in China) imports consumer electronics from Asia and suggested the VPN Express app service for iPhone users who want a casual VPN solution rather than a yearly subscription.

This contact also suggested that Australian business people who make frequent trips overseas should coordinate with their organisation’s IT department to see if their laptop and smartphone can be set up to use the Corporate VPN from overseas. That way a commercial VPN service can be used as a backup rather than the primary choice.

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