Category: Just Interesting

Best Smart DNS vs VPN – (Making a Choice)

For the expat, the traveller or the film/TV buff the internet can often seem to contain lots of filters and blocks on their favourite websites.  This is because of something called geo-blocking or  geo-restrictions (also a host of of other names) and is effectively a system used to limit access to web content based on your physical location.

So for example if you try and watch coverage of the UK election madness on the BBC website from outside the UK the geo-restrictions will stop you watching. Try and access your US Netflix or Hulu account whilst travelling and the same thing will happen.  It seems that on the internet your  physical location shouldn’t really matter, however it does – very much.

Smart DNS vs VPN

In fact this practice is growing exponentially, literally thousands of websites restrict access based on your location.   Just browse on YouTube and you’ll find thousands of videos on that site which are restricted to specific countries.  It can be very frustrating, especially for those who travel a lot and inevitably people find one of two solutions to bypass these restrictions – Smart DNS or VPN.

The technology for these has been around for a long time, and both can be used to access most region blocked websites.  So what’s the difference, which one should you choose?

Should it be Smart DNS or a VPN Service?

Both of these technologies are mostly effective in bypassing most region blocks, however the way they work is quite different.

VPN (Virtual Private Network) – these are services which create secure, encrypted tunnels between your computer and a specially configured VPN server.  They have been used for decades to provide security by encrypting all your data and anonymity by hiding your IP address and location.  When you are connected to a VPN server the website cannot see you true location only that of the VPN server.

To bypass the region locks you just need to ensure that the VPN server is based in the location that does have access.  So for instance to access the BBC iPlayer you’d need a UK VPN server, a US one for Hulu and so on.   The connections are made from your device on demand, so you could connect to a UK VPN from your computer or tablet and watch the BBC or ITV then disconnect and browse normally.  the majority of the VPN services will offer servers based in many countries, so you can just select which one you need.

Smart DNS – is a newer technology based on using specially configured DNS (Domain Name Service) Servers.  These normally just look up the IP address or name of the server you are trying to access, but Smart DNS servers offer an additional service.   They are configured to intercept requests to certain region locked websites and route the connection through a server based in that particular country.

So if you request access to the Hulu website for example to watch a video, the Smart DNS server would automatically route your connection through a US based server.  This means that your connection is only rerouted through a different server when it’s required to bypass a region lock.

So that’s it really – both will usually allow access to region locked websites, so which one should you choose?

Well firstly the price – you’ll find that both are relatively inexpensive however Smart DNS will normally be slightly cheaper.  This is because a Smart DNS server routes through a simpler server and only incurs bandwidth charges for specific servers.   A VPN service will tunnel your entire connection through the VPN server and therefore the bandwidth costs will be much greater.

Smart DNS is also easier to set up on different network devices, it requires no software or client component.  You just change your DNS settings to point at  the Smart DNS servers, therefore it’s simpler for things like Smart TVs and media devices where you can’t always set up a VPN connection.   You can even set it up directly on your router fairly easily too, this has the advantage of applying the settings to all devices on your network.  It’s not always convenient to do this, however it is essential if you want to apply to devices which have no configurable network settings.  This video is a demonstration of setting up best Smart DNS directly on a router –


The VPN is the only one which provides security and anonymity.  Not only is all your data encrypted, your identity is hidden too.  You should always use a VPN to access secure sites like email, online banking and Paypal when using public internet access like Wifi hotspots.

The choice between smart dns vs VPN really depends on your circumstances if you have any requirements for privacy, security and encryption then a VPN is definitely your only option.  Remember Smart DNS services provide no security beyond basic routing to bypass region locks.  A VPN connection is also much harder to detect than a Smart DNS relay, so they generally work better with sites like Netflix which try and block the workarounds.

Here’s two options –

IDC is a full security product with a super fast VPN service  for accessing BBC Iplayer, Hulu and all media sites.  They have loads of  USA and UK based servers so if you want to watch the BBC Iplayer service then it’s probably your best option. They do have lots of servers in the France, Germany, Australia, Canada and throughout Europe as well though.  They also don’t automatically renew your subscription either which I like.

Overplay is another great little company, I like their VPN with Smart DNS  which is easy to use.  Lots of US servers included in the standard subscription. They also have the widest selection of servers although perhaps many won’t use most of them.  If you need a server in somewhere unusual they are most likely to have them.

How to Unlock More Movies on Netflix

One of the problems with Netflix is it’s just too big! Much is made of of it’s super clever algorithm which is designed to guide you to your favorite shows, however the reality is that most of us will never come across thousands of the shows and movies stored on there. Most of the versions of Netflix are the same but the US version has even more content with some estimates suggesting tens of thousands more films and TV shows. Here’s how to unlock more movies on Netflix using a simple hack.

So how can we browse all these films more easily, well some clever chap has discovered a way to break out of Netflix’s suggested movies mode and dive straight into specific categories.

It turns out that you can go straight to thousands of pre-defined categories on Netflix just by using the correct URL. For instance, here’s a few.

Classic Comedies – http://www.netflix.com/browse/genre/31694
Music Documentaries – http://www.netflix.com/browse/genre/90361
Sports Dramas – http://www.netflix.com/browse/genre/7243

You can access them by modifying the end number of the URL and you’ll be directed straight to that category if you’re logged into Netflix. There are in fact 76,000 different categories some of them extremely specific – for instance there’s a category of ‘Witty Movies by Woody Allen’.

Fortunately someone has produced an incredible list of all 76000 categories which you can find on this link. Just have a browse and you’re bound to find a few categories of interest that you’ve never found.

What’s more if you switch to another version of Netflix then these categories still work but you’ll see different movies and shows depending on which country. SO for example you could use one the Netflix VPNs such as this and switch countries before clicking the URL and see loads more. That means you can go directly to very specific genres under each country variant armed with this list and a Netflix working VPN.

It’s definitely worth trying and of course the Netflix algorithm will pick up on your choices after you watch and rate them to update your standard auto-generated menu’s too.

Innovative Cyber Criminals Hack Austrian Hotel

One of the main reasons that in the past cyber crime was never too much of an issue, was the fact that many of the people who were capable of performing the attacks were not that good at the criminal side of it.   Hopeless geeks would steal stuff nobody wanted and then get picked up when they tried extorting money.   This is changing now in a big way as cyber gangs across the world start working with organised crime and becoming much more effective.

Luxury Hotels Targeted by Hackers

One of the current hot cyber crimes is ransomware, getting access to a system and denying access to the data or applications themselves.  A popular method is for viruses to encrypt important data and destroying it unless a payment is made.   It does work occasionally but only on badly configured and poorly defended systems – any half decent disaster recovery system will make such attacks ineffective.

However the latest targets of slightly modified attacks are big hotel chains.  Hotels have long been a target for technological crime, often because there’s a mix of wealthy people using mobile devices and poor levels of IT support and administration.   Previous targets have been hijacking Hotel Wifi systems or infecting lobby computers to steal usernames and passwords.   The latest twist however is to target a much more practical application, the hackers are taking over the hotels keycard systems.  The application which controls, registers and deregisters the room control cards – effectively controlling access to guests rooms – locking them in or out at will.   These are often also linked directly to reservation systems which can also cause havoc for any hotel.

There have been many rumours of these attacks taking place, however one hotel has decided to admit that they were attacked and decided to pay the ransom.  The hotel is a luxurious four star place in Austria called the Romantic Seehotel Jaegerwirt set alongside a beautiful Alpine lake.   Like many modern hotels they have a sophisticated IT system which controls all the key cards.   When the system was compromised none of the keys worked and nobody could open any of the room doors – customers were either locked in or out of their room.

Imagine the chaos that would cause the hotel management, especially on the opening weekend of their busy Winter season.  Then the demand came, a relatively modest request for 1500 EUR paid in Bitcoins in order to restore their key card system and access to the reservation application.  As the manager pointed out, the police and insurance are of little help when you have 180 guests locked out of their rooms.  The manager decided that paying the demand was quicker and cheaper than any other alternative.  There are two crucial aspects to this case, the modest request and the fact that when it was paid the hackers kept their word and restored the system.   These factors are crucial to convincing  victims that ‘paying up’ is the sensible option it in fact the best business decision in the circumstances.

Cyber crime is moving into a new and more dangerous phase than the amateuristic attacks we have seen in the past.   More and more of our world and systems are accessible online, the IoT (Internet of Things) is bringing vulnerabilities into our world that previously didn’t exist and criminals are using these avenues to run their businesses.  The hotel has interestedly identified an upgrade that will prevent these attacks in the future, their next refurbishments will replace the keycards with ordinary keys which were originally used by the hotel when it opened over a hundred years ago.

IP Address Mapping Hell in Kansas

Is there such a thing as a ‘digital hell’ well although it sounds like some sort of melodramatic media headline, one couple in Kansas could arguably have been living there for several years.

Everything that is connected to the internet has an IP address, every computer, laptop, tablet or smart phone needs some sort of address in order to communicate on the world wide web. Tracking, mapping and filtering these addresses is big business and many companies have sprung up providing accurate information on the IP address attached to your device.

Obviously knowing the location is one major part of the puzzle and there are several services for looking up the physical location of an IP address. You can have a look here at where your IP address appears to be located – https://www.whatismyip.com/ – did it return your correct location?  Sometimes these can be very accurate, the information sourced from companies like MaxMind has been built up over many years through a variety of methods. The information is used for a variety of reasons, from targeting advertising to region locking and filtering used by companies like Netflix

Sometimes, however this information is not very accurate at all  but sufficient if you just want a specific country or region. However when a company like MaxMind have no relevant data on an IP address they will tend to resort to assigning a default location. For example if they have no further information other than country is USA, Maxmind will return a default location – the geographic center of the United States.

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Sounds logical? It is until you realise that located in the geographical center of the US is a small farm in Kansas owned by James and Theresa Arnold. Furthermore there are quite a few IP addresses which are registered to this ‘default location’ – specifically just over 600 million addresses.

Now it might seem that this isn’t really a problem, but unfortunately this is not the case. These 600 million addresses are real and being used online all the time – and of course with such a huge volume some of these addresses are being used for all sorts of activities. Spammers, hackers, cyber crime, terrorists, pedophiles are all using these IP addresses online and when anyone tries to investigate their location – they are directed to this small rural farm in Kansas.

For years the couple have been subject to all sorts of accusations – they’ve had visits from law enforcement agencies, public officials, ordinary people who’ve been crime victims and have tracked the IP address back to the Arnold’s home address. You can imagine the volume when even a small percentage of 600 million addresses are used for criminal purposes.

It’s not the only situation like this, there is a house located at the end of a cul-de-sac in Ashburn, Virginia which has similar problems. The town itself is the home to several huge data centers and server farms, all with registered commercial IP addresses – the house was unfortunately given as the default location for millions more IP addresses with similar results – strange accusations and police raids being a common occurrence.

Fortunately there should be a happy ending for both these parties as the ‘default locations’ for unknown IP addresses is being changed to non-residential addresses such as the middle of a lake! The Arnold’s though are unsurprisingly also seeking some financial compensation for the distress and inconvenience over the year, and you can hardly blame them!

Activism or Sensationalism – Erdogan Emails

It’s a pretty turbulent in Turkey at the moment, with many people genuinely worrying about it’s future as a democratic republic.  The failed military coup has ignited all sectors of the country and President Erdogan has seized the opportunity to round up his enemies and imprison them.

So it’s obviously a pretty dramatic time for WikiLeaks to release what’s it’s calling the Erdogan Emails which it says is leaked from the AKP, the ruling party in Turkey.  There are approximately 300,000 which are being released in stages, you can find them on the WikiLeaks website in a searchable database.

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The response has been predictable, the WikiLeaks site has been blocked in Turkey and the activists around the world have shouted and tweeted about the censorship of the Turkish Government. Although people in Turkey are well versed in the use of Open DNS, VPNs and proxies so this has very little effect.

They are of course right, but it doesn’t take much for the Turkish authorities to start banning stuff, in fact it doesn’t mean anything in itself.  Which in this case seems to be the problem, this leak doesn’t seem to actually contain much more than personal information of ordinary Turkish women.   I have had a decent look and found nothing but apparently others have been combing through this stuff for days without finding anything vaguely relevant to power (and/or the abuse of it).

There is however a lot of personal private information of ordinary Turkish voters such as the home addresses, phone numbers or women in most of the Turkish voters list.    Also identifying information such as the Turkish Citizen ID whether they’re in the AKP and similar – in truth it’s the sort of information of much more use to Identity thieves and stalkers than freedom fighters.

There is no doubt that this information could be used to cause significant damage to innocent individuals, so was WikiLeaks right to publish this?

It’s easy to argue the case that WikiLeaks isn’t responsible for deciding what is or isn’t released. Plus the resources needed to individually check and verify the data fully is probably beyond the organisation. However surely there should be some cursory checks before releasing the personal details of so many innocent Turkish women. It really is difficult to get passed the mundane and personal feel to these emails, much of it just simple correspondence from Turkish citizens.

The reality is that the information was probably already available before WikiLeaks released it, including all the people likely to try and exploit this information. The opposite argument suggests that once information is already released then it’s best for as many people possible to be aware, the victims are better forewarned than ignorant.

Overall though I think an organisation like WikiLeaks should be careful that the information released is in the public interest, perhaps we might find something in the coming months in these emails too.