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When you travel for business, do you have access to everything you need?
Can you visit every website that has the information you want? Can you take a breather and relax with a few videos or look up some local restaurants and sightseeing spots on a laptop without draining your phone’s battery?
If you’re traveling through a country where certain sites are blocked, or dealing with a company computer that won’t connect to the sites you need, here are a few ways to get around the issue.
How Do Website Blocks Work?
Many websites are blocked based on their content type. Firewalls — the systems that allow good internet traffic and block bad traffic — can be customized to look for content (the text, pictures, and “meat” of a site).
You’ve probably seen different categories on content filter, page blocked, page restricted, or other similar warnings. Here are a few common categories:
- Adult/Mature Content
- Chat/Instant Messaging
- Cultural Institutions
- Drugs/Illegal Drugs
- Freeware/Software Downloads
Firewalls can also block specific sites. This happens when a business or government has a specific problem with a site. The opposite situation of unblocking a useful site is possible at the business level, but can be slow at the government level.
Most people just complain or work around it.
Entire countries also use firewalls to block websites that violate certain policies. China is famous for its censorship laws, but countries such as the United Kingdom have filters on sites accused of violating copyright laws — especially file-sharing websites which may have legal and illegal content.
A VPN Can Get Around Firewalls And Other Filters
For traveling professionals, keeping up with local laws just to check websites isn’t reasonable. Especially when those sites are otherwise free and public, it’s silly to create a personal list of prohibited sites unless there’s some severe punishment involved.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) can help you navigate through filters and firewalls with ease. VPNs create a secure link across the internet that hides your network connection. For firewalls, the most important hidden information is your destination.
For most firewalls — especially large national or catch-all firewalls set up by small businesses — the destination is all that matters. Firewalls don’t want you to visit a specific site or a specific category of sites.
By masking the destination, the firewalls sees nothing but generic data. Most firewall administrators don’t care about your specific data type and won’t bother to investigate.
In these large access situations, monitoring personnel are either not well trained or short-staffed. In many cases, the monitors don’t exist at all; unless you’re trying to break into a business network or access a company or government’s secure files, there’s little reason to comb through every piece of data.
If you’re using a business computer that has firewall restrictions, it’s all about knowing company policy. Some firewalls are too aggressive and may need some review and tweaking. Some companies don’t have permanent networking staff and are unable to make changes to their firewalls easily.
You’re the best judge for your situation. If your job can’t be completed without accessing a restricted site, would your boss want you to wait? Are network staff available?
If you need the information now, take the initiative. Be safe and consult a VPN professional who can guide you through setup and safe use. An easier work around to access restricted websites is to unblock with Chrome browser extension.
Using VPNs To Avoid Surveillance
Nations that watch their citizens may not have the legal authority to do so. If you suspect spying — either by government actors or by a competitor — you’ll want to use a VPN aggressively.
There are multiple features available in modern VPNs, but surveillance targets may be interested in varying their paths. Although it’s difficult to track down a VPN-hidden connection, it’s not impossible if your patterns are the same.
VPN networking usually varies its route as part of normal operations, but are you connecting from or to the same server? That could give interested parties a good starting point, but it’s easy to change that starting point within the VPN service.
Try connecting to different servers and even in different countries. Create a mental pattern, such as using different countries every day of the week and changing the daily order on a weekly or monthly basis.
Hunting Down Block Content With Caches
Whether or not you’re using a VPN, there are ways to circumvent website blocks and firewalls by looking for a cached version of a page.
For website access, a cache is basically a saved snapshot of a website. This snapshot saves images, text, and sometimes even functioning code that allows you to navigate the cached page.
In some situations, the original website type isn’t reported by the cache site. Since the cache site itself is harmless at first glance, you can look at old version of websites. You may even be able to slowly see updates by requesting snapshot updates, then viewing those pages.
Using a cache to circumvent firewalls and filters is hit or miss. There is a chance that the firewall is setup to scan the actual page, which may pick up some of the original site’s content for a delayed block.
There’s also a chance that the cache site may be blocked specifically. Using a cache to circumvent firewalls isn’t new or difficult, but many firewalls are deployed quickly with a pre-built list of blocked sites and not changed.
These lists usually don’t include caching websites, especially since cache websites can be useful. For productivity, trying to enjoy time off from work isn’t easy with a proxy, so major firewall list groups aren’t likely to target caches.
Whether you’re avoiding national or business firewalls, a VPN is probably your best choice. There are less hassles, and setup doesn’t take much effort.
If you’re not sure of how and when to use a VPN, a network security professional can help. Services such as Surfshark are willing to discuss your privacy needs and restrictions to figure out which types of problems you’re dealing with.
VPN services can help you unblock websites on popular browsers, Android devices, and many other platforms. With a professional’s help, you can set up personal phones or burner phones — phones that are meant to be tossed out after short-term use — to use for your business trip.
If you’re computer savvy and just want to know what the VPN can do, feel free to talk shop. Nerds are welcome, and there are a lot of things that both you and the VPN service can learn while looking through your unique situation.
Finally, figure out if the country or business you’re working in has a VPN restriction. Understand your restrictions and rights, and ask VPN professionals for advice and options.
Contact a network and cyber security professional to get help accessing the data you need.