Category: News

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.

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.

UK Users to Receive Piracy Warning Letters

A couple of weeks ago I sat in the front room of an elderly neighbour, on the TV screen was a Premier League football match being broadcast on Sky Sports.    I was surprised because I knew this chap struggled on a basic pension and the Sky Sports package is not cheap!   However I then noticed the digital box, it was not the standard Sky digital  box but a custom TV media box complete with VPNs.

For a few pounds a year to cover updates, this box was pre-installed with a version of Kodi and a few extras which granted free access to every single Sky subscription channel.  The cost of these channels if paid for legitimately would be over a hundred pounds a month, yet the cost for these was virtually nothing.  The box even simulated the Sky selection screen which meant that this 80 year old man was happily surfing at the cutting edge of digital piracy.

A New Breed of Digital Pirate?

It turns out his nephew has installed it and he’d been using it for several months.   He was blissfully unaware that technically he was stealing all this content from Sky and to be honest I didn’t feel the need to spoil his enjoyment by telling him

The reality is that in the UK and indeed across the world, digital piracy is starting to hit the mainstream.  In millions of households, neat little digital boxes sit happily under TVs streaming illegal copies of US cable channels or UK satellite channels.  It’s got to the point that it’s so common that most people don’t even consider it illegal, something like taping a radio programme or copying a DVD.  After all why pay a fortune monthly to some huge media conglomerate when you can purchase a pre-installed media streamer that supplies the same for nothing.

It does of course, cost the media companies huge amounts of lost revenue and obviously they are trying to stop this.  In the UK this month, will see the first phase of action designed to stop this behaviour.  The biggest ISPs in the UK will all be sending out emails to any individual who’s internet connection is being used to download copyrighted material illegally.

It’s been discussed for years but has always been postponed for a variety of reasons.   For example there was a lot controversy when copyright holders started using a practice dubbed as speculative invoicing.  These were basically demands for money threatening legal action against anyone who’s internet connection was being used to download copyrighted material – you can read about in this article – Bittorrents Monitored.   The issue has never been detecting the downloads but rather what actions can be taken, legally it was very difficult to prove an individual was responsible even if their internet connection was being used.

The letters will be sent in the form of emails, and will simply inform the user that their internet connection is being used to download copyrighted material and information about where it can be obtained legitimately.    There will be no threats, fines or further action and critics have pointed out that it will have little effect.   The action will only target P2P users, those who download using torrents and file shares – however the use of these methods has fallen dramatically over the last few years.  The majority of people who view copyrighted material now stream directly using these TV boxes and programs such as Kodi which are slightly more difficult to detect.

It is likely that these users will be targeted later although who knows how long this will take.

Snooper’s Charter – UK Passes Surveillance Law

This was always likely to happen given recent events, the ridiculous snooper’s charter which was originally tabled in 2012 by the then home secretary Theresa May has been approved and passed.

12-01-2009-anonsymoussurfingsoftware-anonymous_democracy-dictators

Over the years it’s been blocked and repealed with good cause, civil liberties groups have described it as the most extreme surveillance legislation ever passed in a democratic nation.   It’s a huge blow to personal privacy with the government basically having access to pretty  much everything we do online.

Here’s some stand out points:

Internet provider’s Forced to Log Web History for 12 Months

This is a great one, your ISP will be forced to record every single web site you visit for 12 months.  So just imagine this, Government departments will be able to generate a list of every single web site you have visited for the last year.   Sounds a bit Orwellian,  a bit intrusive?  We thinks so!  Further imagine sitting down for an interview or an application with some Government official sitting across the desk from you with that list in hand.

Decrypt Data on Demand

The government will have the power to force any company or individual to decrypt data on demand.  Obviously no one really has any idea how this will work or how it can be implemented, but this just means it can be made up to suit the situation.  Is your VPN a protection, who knows if the law demands you hand over the key perhaps not.

Intelligence Agencies can Hack into Our Devices and Computers

Great eh!  Not only do they get a list of every porn site you may have inadvertently clicked on over the last 12 months, but the Government can legitimately hack into your phone, TV or internet enabled toaster to pry just a little bit further.  The use of the word ‘devices’ means they have pretty much ‘carte blanche’ to break into every electronic device in your possession and create sinister, snoopy lists and databases.

government-snoop-information

There are many other provisions, and in the spirit of oppressive regimes everywhere lots  of them are kept suitably vague and unclear.  This is important because it allows the security agencies to do pretty much anything and claim it is covered under the legislation.  Places like Iran, Turkey and China have been doing this for decades.

Is privacy a basic human right?  Many people think so, yet this legislation completely erodes that concept.   It’s been criticized from all quarters – privacy groups, United Nations representatives, lots of IT companies and even the parliamentary committee that was tasked with looking through the bill.

Nothing seemed to matter and the UK has now established a legal right to spy on it’s citizens like some second rate, despotic regime.

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.

ipad-632394_640-1

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!