AnchorFree ups the ante on secure hotspot use: The free Wi-Fi advocating network reduces the cost of virtual private network (VPN) access from a few dollars a month to free. AnchorFree has built its own free hotspots in the Bay Area, acquired MetroFreeFi.com, and is building an affiliate network of free locations that meet its technical standards in exchange for some group resources and branding. Do you see the trend for free?
Over the last two years, I've written extensively about VPN use in hotspots and reviewed a number of services like personalVPN (WiTopia.net), publicVPN.com, and HotSpotVPN.com. I've also written about my editorially affiliated partner JiWire and their SpotLock service, which combines a hotspot directory, how-to guides, and a VPN.
AnchorFree, which just received $6m in private funding, may tap into a very broad audience of Windows 2000/XP laptop toters who just want the security without paying for it, even modest amounts. Regular readers will recall that Google launched a free, fairly limited VPN test (it used PPTP, which I would describe as last century's technology, although with the right long password, it's plenty secure). While the FAQ is still available, Google's VPN page is missing in action. I'll be surprised if we don't see Google VPN return for metro-scale Wi-Fi market, however; it originally appeared at wifi.google.com as part of their testing with free Wi-Fi in San Francisco. (Search on Google VPN on Google and you get a page that redirects to their home page.)
I asked AnchorFree what flavor of VPN they're using, and it's SSL (read a 2005 article at InfoWorld or this TidBITS article on VPNs in general for background). This form doesn't require a reboot, and it's controlled via a local Web page once it's installed. I did some brief testing and found performance and security just fine, although I'd like to see some security types really pound on it (and report problems to AnchorFree before publicizing them), to run it through its paces.
My absolute recommendation for all public hotspot users, as much or as little as you care about your security, is to use a VPN or secure any connection that uses a password with SSH or SSL/TLS.
With a free solution available, you owe it to yourself to try it out. If it's not flexible enough, tell AnchorFree why (they might improve it), or migrate to a few dollar a month service. Mac users, Linux users, and other Windows platforms still need to pay, but given the wide availability of SSL VPN clients out there, I would imagine AnchorFree has further plans.