My New Travelling Companion

I had to go and work in France a few weeks ago, and it was an incredible experience.  However one of the difficulties I had was being a single (and slightly disorganised) person I found it very difficult to keep my domestic life running smoothly.  I had presumed that the internet would make managing my affairs more straightforward, things like paying bills, utilities and subscriptions could all be done online.  However this actually wasn’t as straightforward as I initially thought, for one very simple reason.

This is the situation that what you can do online from an American home is not always the same as can be achieved from a French hotel. The reason is a technology called region locking which restricts access to various websites and services based on your location.   My first problem was a direct result of this, when I couldn’t access my online banking in order to pay some bills.   It turned out that as an anti-fraud measure my banking site was only available to someone connecting from the USA.  Any access from a foreign country e.g France was blocked in case it was fraudulent – sensible but extremely inconvenient.

It wasn’t just this, a myriad of sites I discovered either didn’t work properly or certain features were disabled because of my location.  Even simple things like my Netflix subscription didn’t work properly as I got redirected to the French version (with lots of French dubbed movies!).  I did figure this out in the end by using a US IP address for Netflix  which was a revelation to me.

Using a VPN like this turned out to be the solution, if I needed to use US only websites then I merely connected through my US VPN service.    The site would think I was in the US and my online banking worked and lots of other sites too.   It made life much simpler and gave me that link back to home that was being denied me because of all this region locking.   I also discovered that using the VPN actually made sense security wise too, it ensures all your data is encrypted whilst connected protecting it from anyone who was eavesdropping!

For anyone in the same situation I can recommend using one of these services. They’re relatively inexpensive and can normally be subscribed on a monthly basis which is useful for people who travel occasionally.

More Reading:

http://www.uktv-online.com/entertainment/working-netflix-vpn/

Dangers of Using Torrents

When you first see a torrenting client being used it’s pretty impressive stuff, search for a movie, click a button or two and a little while later it’s sitting on your hard drive.   There is no need for any technical knowledge, no special skills or coding required other than installing one of the many BitTorrent clients on your computer.  It’s simple to see why they are so popular when you can get a copy of a brand new DVD downloaded at no cost whatsoever.

Unfortunately there are risks and these are growing greatly all the time.   The problem lies mainly on the transparent nature of these clients and how torrents actually work.  When you load a torrent file into your client, you aren’t actually downloading anything at that point – it’s simply information regarding a set of files which may be downloaded.  These files don’t actually exist on a single server, they are shared among thousands of computers which are actually downloading the file , known as ‘the swarm’.   When you start downloading your computer joins this swarm and shares the files on your own computer as you download.  The idea is that all the computers help download and share the file, people are expected to stay in the swarm for some time after completion in order to keep sharing the content.

It sounds great in theory, however the open manner leads to numerous issues.  First the sharing, the bitTorrent client is actually sharing out a section of your hard drive with complete strangers.   This is never a good idea in any context, although direct exploits against torrent clients are relatively rare – uploading viruses and malware is extremely common.  It’s basically a simple way to spread a virus because you are automatically given rights to save files on a stranger’s computers.

The risk of infecting your computer and data while using torrents, has always been around but there are greater issues to using this method too.  The problems comes with the complete lack of privacy while using these clients while downloading.  While there is a way of doing this safely not many people bother, this article has more information – best VPN for torrenting.  Imagine this, when I try and download a ripped copy of the latest Hollywood Blockbuster – in the torrent screen I will see the IP addresses of thousands of other people illegally downloading the file too.  Now imagine you’re the copyright holder, this is a list of people who are infringing your copyright.   Every single person on that list is identifiable through their IP address and could potentially be sued for damages running into thousands of dollars.

It’s easy to see how the media firms are attracted to this method, targeting those users with legal action has two main effects:

  • Brings in huge amount of revenue in fines and damages.
  • Acts as a strong deterrent for copyright infringement.

It’s already happening in the US and across Europe where individuals are receiving threats of legal action because they’re internet connection has been used to downloaded pirated content. It’s incredibly lucrative as most people will inevitably settle out of court when threatened.  IF you’re using these torrent clients to download files then you should make sure you protect your privacy whilst doing it.

Further Reading:

 

 

Trump Worries Corporate America

He may have portrayed himself as the President who knows business during the election, yet the biggest companies in the US are starting to get a little nervous about his style.

An example came this week when the Chief Executive of Boeing was quoted in an interview that we was worried about Trump’s stance on international trade.    A few hours later along came a tweet concerning the rising costs that have hindered the building of the new Air Force One.

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That was just the morning incidents and in the afternoon, there was a Tweet claiming credit for a Japanese conglomerates decision to invest some $50 billion in the United States.   There was some surprise about this as the pledge had been previously announced many months ago.

All in one day we had this plus an announcement that Trump had sold all his stock, and many other comments, announcements and pledges.   It’s not a style that America is used to and it certainly is starting to make corporate network extremely jittery.  The style that is usually preferred is that of stability and caution from their leadership.  Many businessmen and economics experts are worried that they will not be able to voice opinions without becoming involved in a public spat with the President-elect.

The president obviously has a lot of power and threats even implied ones can have a myriad of effects.   Casual comments about issues have a different effect when they are coming from the President of the United States.  They can potentially inhibit free speech, perhaps cause stock market fluctuations or even contribute to international incidents in extreme circumstances.

Others however have defended Trump’s style of doing business stating that it is just a matter of time before he reigns back his style.  Also there is a learning curve on both sides and individual corporations and executives will begin to develop their own ways of reacting to the new President.

This causes another concern because it appears that President Trump is someone worth currying favor with.  If any politician is seen to be rewarding his friends and allies but punishing people who disagree with him it creates a sort of false, nepotistic capitalism.

The role of a President is to safeguard and promote the whole economy and not cherry pick or manipulate individual businesses.   Every company and individual is entitled to an ‘equal protection of the law’ – one of the bastions of the United State’s constitution us that the country should be a nation of laws and not of men.

Jim Williams

Author of proxy for Netflix

America Sees Decline in Maths

This week has seen the release of the latest educational scores from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) , these rate educational systems across the world and are largely regarded as one of the best educational assessments.

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This set of results covers an assessment of 15 year olds in 70 educational systems across the world.  The focus of the study is based on an exam which is taken by a representative sample from each of the countries taken part in the study.

So how did the US get on?  Well overall the results are less than inspiring in the 2015 exams which this report is publishing.  Scores in reading and science have remained largely the same since the last study, but there has been a significant drop in maths results.  In fact the maths results have dipped to a low not seen since 2006, remember the PISA exam is only taken every three years though.

The scores don’t make positive reading for the US educational system – reading and science although static are still only average at an international level.   These results are only compared with developed countries who are members of the OECD.

It is the maths scores which are of most concern particularly because they seem to demonstrate a declining trend.    To out into context in Science – 9% of US children received a top score, compared with 6% in maths.  The average of OECD countries was 11%, which is obviously quite a lot higher.

The US Education Secretary is expected to speak about the results this week which are obviously extremely disappointing.  There are though some reasons for being more positive because the results are actually quite different when regionalised.   There are several regions in the US which are performing much more strongly, such as the education sector across New England.

The problem is than in this digital, globalized world US students are  not just competing for jobs against American students but those from Germany, Italy and Singapore.   It is a simple task to employ and utilise skills from anywhere in the world.  Despite the various blocks and filters there are tools like VPN and anonymous tools which can bypass these blocks and allow people to work remotely.

The US has closed the gaps of socioeconomic disparity across the country though, there is less difference between different social and economic classes than previously.  However this seems to have been achieved at a cost of overall standards with most subjects either static or declining.  Much points to a drop in investment in education though, something that

Further Information:

BBC News Site

 

New Smart DNS Solution for Netflix

Smart DNS was one of the newest solutions for accessing  the big media sites when you were deemed to be in the wrong location.  So Hulu subscribers used it on holiday, BBC viewers used it when outside the UK and it opened up the Pandora’s box of Netflix regions.  It had some advantages over proxies and VPNs as well as some drawbacks.  The main plus point for Smart DNS was that it could be used on just about any device as long as you could access the network settings.

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There was no real need for direct authentication, no installation of a VPN client which meant it was perfect for the plethora of media devices we use today to stream our video and audio content.  For example, you can’t use a VPN with an Xbox one simply because there’s no way to install the software directly.  Plus you couldn’t set it up manually as there’s no way to enable the authentication that is used on a proper VPN.

However all that is irrelevant with Smart DNS, as you don’t need any software it’s all configured via a DNS server.   Normally your internet connection is unaffected, name resolution is performed as normal until the request is received for a ‘region locked’ website like Netflix.  See how it works here  in this demonstration – Smart DNS Netflix, which shows you how to configure it which takes about two minutes.

It’s simple to use however you should remember that it provides no security component at all, a VPN encrypts and  protects your data simply using a specially configured DNS server does not.  So if you’re using from abroad over public or insecure wifi connections then be careful, don’t access sites like banking, webmail or other important sites from these connections.

Unfortunately there is one other problem with Smart DNS and that is it’s relatively simple to block.   Which is why in the great Netflix purge that happened a few months ago it also took down every single DNS solution for Netflix.  That’s starting to change now and the link above does contain the first Smart DNS solution which has been fixed, I believe it took a lot of effort and expense though so who knows if Smart DNS has a long term future for bypassing region locking.  Of course the real solution is to stop blocking, filtering and locking the world wide web – let people access what they wish.  Especially with subscription services like Netflix which you actually have to pay for then find you can’t access simply because of your location!!

Getting the Best Digital Deal

The internet is by far the biggest marketplace on the planet. Increasingly it is the place that individuals turn to buy all sorts of goods and services. It seems like one big, global market so you would think that everyone would get the same deals and the same access, unfortunately that isn’t quite true. Even for the many global brands which sell online, they offer a variety of goods for sale at different prices depending primarily on your physical location. It seems crazy yet in the digital world your location does matter.

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The reasons are of course rooted in money, one of the particular ways in which companies maximise their profits is by selling at the highest possible margin. Yet this margin alters depending on your location because of a variety of reasons ranging from competition to living standards. You can sell something for more money in some markets than others which is why it’s important that firms build up these artificial boundaries in the digital world. Take for example the online games retailer – Steam, they sell games digitally, you pay and then download. It shouldn’t matter what location you are in, the product and delivery cost is identical. However they know that they can maximise their profits by selling at higher costs in some wealthier countries than others. You’ll pay more to download a game from the UK than you will from South America for example.

So how do the companies manage to charge different costs online? Well they do this by looking at your IP address when you connect to their web site. It will determine your location and then offer you a regionalised price list – it could even be a completely different website. Doesn’t sound fair? Digital Exploitation? Well perhaps but fortunately there is a way of bypassing this and treating the internet as the global marketplace it should be by simply switching the residential IP address that you are using.

It’s actually very easy to do and can be achieved without any technical knowledge using some sort of proxy or VPN service. This hides your real location and if you connect to a website you should receive the same offers and services as those in the country which the VPN server is based in.   So you can buy your online games in South America and save money, or stream to region locked digital service.

Further Reading:

BBC Block VPNs – http://www.iplayerabroad.com/2016/07/20/bbc-vpn-block-real/