Tethering To A Mobile Hotspot? Be Sure Your Devices Are Secure.
Just when you thought life was complicated enough, along comes a curve ball to unsettle even the geekiest of internet users – how do you know that your internet connection is secure, unthrottled and unrestricted by your mobile phone service provider?
It sounds like an obvious question, but consider this fictional and perfectly possible scenario:
Brad is addicted to the masterpiece TV series ‘Breaking Bad’. He’s only just discovered it and he’s binge-watching like a man possessed. Brad’s landline internet connection goes down without warning, and he’s just finished watching Season 2 Ep 1, where dangerous psychopath and drug kingpin Tuco kidnaps Walt and Jessie, taking them off into the desert to endure an unknown fate.
Brad simply can’t wait for his landline internet to come back up. He checks his internet service provider’s (ISP) known outage page on his phone, but there’s no clue as to when normal service will be resumed. Having only about a gigabyte of data left on his mobile account, he figures he has enough to at least watch Ep 2. By then the ISP will have fixed the internet, or if the worst comes to the worst, he can buy extra data from the phone company.
So Brad turns on the ‘personal hotspot’ on his Android phone, and tethers his laptop to the connection, using the usual Wi-Fi password. Brad opens another cold beer, puts some more potato chips into his bowl and sits down to find out what happens to the meth-cooking dynamic duo when they are imprisoned under Tuco’s merciless whim. Just at the point when Hank Schrader arrives as a potential savior at Tuco’s desert hideout, packing enough heat to start WW3, the shootout starts- and then- Brad’s laptop screen freezes! Horror of horrors!
Tearing out his hair in frustration, immediately Brad thinks that his mobile phone provider is ‘throttling’ his connection. He performs a generic ‘speed test’ on his phone’s browser to reveal a download speed of 50Mbps, more than fast enough to avoid screen freezing on Netflix.
However, Brad is a bit internet savvy, he doesn’t simply blame Netflix. He knows that mobile phone providers slow down (‘throttle’) the internet protocol (IP) addresses of specific streaming platforms, so he turns on the free VPN for chrome extension on his phone. The phone’s connection is now effectively anonymous and encrypted, so the mobile phone company can’t know where Brad’s data is being consumed, so they can’t throttle his connection. Or can they? Brad clears the laptop’s browser cache, deletes all cookies, restarts the machine and logs on again. Still a crawling slow connection.
So Brad has a brainwave. Installing a VPN extension onto the laptop’s browser, he tries the whole set up again. After a few seconds, Hank is popping caps at Tuco like it’s the shootout at the OK Corral. Four beers later, halfway through Ep3, Brad is pleased to see that his landline internet appears to have resumed, so he can wait another week until his mobile data refreshes itself back to 12Gb. Tuco is slain, and the day is saved for Brad, Jesse and Walter.
But why didn’t Brad’s phone VPN stop the laptop from being throttled by the mobile phone data provider? It’s all down to connections, tunnels and routing of the internet signal. In simple terms, when Brad activated the data hotspot on his phone, he was merely allowing his data connection to be ‘discoverable’ and diverted via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to any other device requesting access. But that data was diverted before the phone’s VPN extension could encrypt it. The more technical aspect to this answer lies in the word ‘extension’ in the phrase ‘VPN extension’.
In simple terms, a VPN extension acts as a piece of software running alongside the browser to which it’s installed. That’s the crucial thing- the VPN protects any data processed by the browser, not data provided by the phone itself. As a useful bonus, people with children can use this knowledge to bypass any parental viewing controls they might set up on their home networks. After the little terrors have gone to bed, of course!
The short takeaway from all this is simple. If you want to prevent data throttling, bypass geographical restrictions and build a defense against malware and phishing attacks, if you’re using a mobile device, you should install a VPN extension onto the phone’s browser AND also install the same onto the browser of any connected device. This is because a phone’s data hotspot (usually) sends unfiltered signals directly to the tethered laptop or tablet.
Add to this the other advantages of potentially avoiding dynamic pricing, and the technique of using a separate browser extension for phone and laptop makes perfect sense. Try this for an interesting online privacy experiment:
- Use your phone, connected to 4G or 5G, not your landline internet, without any VPN extension turned on, to browse a travel & hotel booking site and get a price for a specific room or ticket. Note the price you’re offered.
- Turn on the VPN extension, clear all cookies and cache, re-start the device and perform the same search. Note the price you’re offered.
- Tether your laptop, VPN extension off, to the mobile phone and try the same search. Note the price you’re offered.
- Repeat three but turn on the laptop’s VPN extension. Compare all four prices. It’s very likely that there will be some differences between them all. But did you get better offers with the VPN on or off?
The answers open some interesting debates about dynamic pricing: do retailers offer higher prices to wealthier areas? They might even detect that you’re accessing the web via a Mac as opposed to an old PC laptop- then increase the price on the basis that their potential customer is a rich professional as opposed to a home PC user. Does the time you search make a difference – in the dead of night or during business hours? Do the research and draw your own conclusions.
In any case, in order to ensure that your internet activity is safe, you should use a VPN on every device in the home or office, if possible, rather than relying on the router or a hotspot to cope with data security of itself.