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.

Hey Look, That’s Suspicious. Hide IP all Internet Traffic

One very important aspect of privacy that is usually overlooked is that of discretion.  If you want to remain private, then it’s important not to stand out – in IT circles it’s often called security by obscurity.   I remember once having to investigate unauthorized use of a database system by an employee.   The scenario was that this particular application could be used to look up all sorts of personal details about people however this was strictly  forbidden.

When I started to investigate, it took about 2 minutes from looking at the logs to identifying the culprit.  The logs were huge, but all access was identified by the user access name in one column.  The usernames were all in a long format like this –  user/2347643-1964 all except one whose username was Bob21 (slightly changed to protect the stupid), and it stood out a mile.  The user had created his own account and used it to look up details of a love rival, but had failed to keep to the same username format as everyone else.   It yelled – check me out, very loudly indeed – he was discovered and subsequently lost his job.

hide vpn traffic

The point is that it’s all very well having a super secure and encrypted connection, however if this is too obvious you run the risk of making yourself a target and inviting investigation.  This is particularly relevant in using a proxy or VPN or proxy to hide yourself online.  Sure they work and a properly configured VPN over port 80 does keep you very secure, however if anyone looks at the logs the VPN user can stand out.

The reason is that in standard ISP logs a normal web user will have a variety of internet requests to all sorts of different web servers and IP addresses.  The VPN user will have all those hidden and will interact with the single IP address of the VPN server.  This stands out, the same IP addresses being connected almost permanently and no requests made to anywhere else.  The IP address is either a fascinating web site or more likely a proxy or VPN – it’s also simple to search and filter for this sort of behaviour.

Fortunately it is possible to hide VPN traffic by using certain highly secure VPN services which can be made almost invisible too with a few carefully configured options.   Here’s an example of those settings that you can configure in Identity Cloaker.

Basically you need to ensure that you rotate the IP address you access periodically – so that a variety of addresses appear. This suggest normal web browsing rather than a single encrypted connection which can help to hide openvpn traffic too. Other options are to allow the cloaking of different applications, so that some requests go direct to the site whilst others are redirected through the VPN tunnel.

After all if you’re streaming video from a recognised site, do you need encryption? Is it a secret?  You might already run openvpn over https too, and by making this sort of behaviour accessible and readable you control what aspects of your online activity is private and which isn’t.   These are simple tricks but extremely useful if you’re serious about tying to hide VPN traffic properly.

It’s not that difficult if you have these options in your VPN service to melt back into the crowd. However it makes a huge difference to the level of privacy you enjoy. A little obscurity is an essential element in keeping yourself safe online, any security adviser knows all too well that you should avoid making yourself into a target.

 

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.