Technology – is it the info superhighway or the road to Perdition?

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Every day technology is dictating the way we live our lives, so it seems. Actually, it’s not the tech itself (yet) that’s causing this headlong rush to exclude the human element from the way we shop, live, eat, sleep, read, and travel. More accurately, it’s the entrepreneurs and software start-ups that claim to make our lives easier with their products that are driving this obsession for automation.

For example, in the UK just last month, Network Rail, the country’s train services operator, announced the wholesale closure of ticket offices across England, Scotland, and Wales, in favor of train company ticketing apps. Prepaid paper tickets (bought online) can still be collected from machines, but the human element has been removed from the process of getting a train from here to there.

Gone are the days when a passenger with perhaps visual impairment or simply being elderly could approach a kiosk and ask a friendly human being the best way to get from A to B on a train. Now you have to download an app, use a security platform such as a Free VPN to secure it, while always making sure that your battery is fully charged, then understand how to use the whole lot or risk a substantial fine for traveling without a ticket.

Readers of a certain age might remember a popular album released by the British rock musician Chris Rea in 1989, its title track was called ‘Road to Hell’. The song questions the morality of technology and easy credit so that people get into debt buying stuff they don’t really need, simply because it’s the ‘latest thing’. One of the song’s lines states:

“This ain’t no upwardly mobile freeway /

Oh no…This is the road to hell…”

This is the point – technology isn’t always beneficial, and when it’s designed for its own sake, or for the pure profit of the people designing it, perhaps there should be some common sense applied before it’s too late.

Using so much technology in our daily lives also comes with the added dangers of fraud. The more often the human element is taken out of processes, the easier it gets for cyber-criminals, hackers, and tech-savvy opportunists to steal our identities. Take the recent incidents of hackers breaking the code of ticketing apps to buy tickets from other people’s accounts, then use them on their own devices. That’s way easier than stealing someone’s wallet on a train and using their paper ticket for an onward journey.

Unfortunately, there’s very little we can do as individuals or even in our working lives as employees to push back against this trend, and complain as we might if we want to fly in an airplane, hire a car, or take a bus, we need an app to do it and a phone to do it with. In this case, protecting our online activities using a virtual private network (VPN) is all the more crucial.

VPNs are extremely useful browser extensions that help device users to connect to the internet not through their usual internet service provider (ISP) but via an encrypted, anonymous ‘middleman’ server, which can detect malicious activity on any phone or computer and instantaneously disconnect it if hackers or internet baddies are trying to access a user’s connection.

This is especially useful in public areas where people use the free Wi-Fi available. Imagine you’re at a train station and have to use a ticketing app to get to the next city. You log onto the free Wi-Fi hotspot via your phone at the station café. But that hotspot could well be a guy at a corner table with a ‘phantom’ connection. You unknowingly connect to his computer, and then he installs malware onto your machine via an ostensible ‘welcome’ email.

Aside from the security aspects, VPNs also offer other benefits such as removing geographic content restrictions if you’re on vacation away from home. Netflix, for example, won’t offer certain content to be viewed outside the USA due to copyright reasons. If you’re staying in a hotel in London and you want to watch your favorite show, you’ll be blocked. But a couple of clicks of a mouse will allow your VPN to use a server with a Stateside IP address and within moments you’ll be all set.

Finally, it’s also worth remembering nowadays that many ISPs will ‘throttle’ some connections due to heavy data use. Just recently, in fact, Elon Musk’s ‘X’ platform (formerly Twitter) was caught deliberately slowing down connections of links to rival platforms to frustrate users. If, for example, a particularly popular show on Apple TV is being watched by, say, 50% of a given ISP’s customers, that ISP could well slow down the data connection to Apple TV, whilst leaving other IP addresses untouched. In such a scenario, the customer will be trying to watch the Apple TV show but buffering and pixelation make it impossible to view.

Angry at the glitch, the viewer then goes to any of the popular ‘speed test’ sites and finds that their internet connection is providing their contracted speed. The user blames Apple TV, whereas the reality is that the crafty ISP has throttled Apple’s server, but not the speed test site. If the user has a VPN, however, the ISP doesn’t know who they are or where they’re located, so it can’t throttle a connection it can’t quantify. In summary, using a VPN offers many advantages in our brave new world of technology, at least meaning if we must use our phones for almost everything in our daily lives, at least our personal privacy and financial security remain uncompromised.