Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Tech | Of elections, VPNs and the future of Internet Access

On February 18, 2016, Ugandans woke up to the unfortunate realization that they had been blocked from accessing major social media platforms following an order from Uganda Communications Commission (UCC). 

Micro-blogging websites such as facebook and Twitter, as well as Whatsapp were the most affected platforms for most GSM subscribers using MTN, Africell and Airtel internet data. Viber, YouTube, Google plus and a few others were not touched, largely because their usage via mobile phones was not deemed extensive enough to pose any serious risks.

As usual, Ugandans went scouring the internet for potential workarounds, and once the first breakthrough – via VPN – was made, the rest was history. By the end of day 2 of the blockade, VPN software related downloads had soared to over 1.4 million!

For most IT junkies, VPN technology was not exactly something new. They have been using VPNs to remotely access sensitive systems that include mobile, security and financial systems. Others have been surfing anonymously, with the principal aim of bypassing network filters to access websites that are restricted at their respective workplaces.

Financial institutions, security systems and telecommunications firms mainly use VPNs for purposes of availing remote system support and for secure integrations with third-party services as one of their several security precautions.

What is a VPN?
Simply put, VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It is essentially a group of discrete computers networked together over a public network – the internet. Basically, it is a seemingly secure network that opens up access possibility to several other networks, some of which would have blocked by the end user’s ISP or workplace local area network (LAN) settings.

Many businesses use VPNs to connect remote datacenters, and individuals can use VPNs to get access to network resources when they are not on the same physical network. A VPN also serves as a method for securing and encrypting their communication when they are using an untrusted public network (

Your choice of VPN
This will depend on a number of factors. They could range from the purpose for which one needs the VPN, the infrastructure, or the device one intends to use. For most Ugandans affected on 18th, the principle reason everyone wanted a VPN was to access social media, and largely via their handset.

Most of them had no idea about which precautions they needed to have in place. All that mattered was finding a way around the albatross that was the UCC directive. Of course they also needed something they would not have to pay an arm and leg for. So most, if not all opted for the free options or those that attracted a minimum cost.

This automatically limited the number of options they could have used. Many turned to one of TunnelBear, VyprVPN, WiTopia, Cloud VPN, StrongVPN, Tor (this is basically a browser, so will not work for whatsapp), Ipredator and proXPN. Most of these are available on Google Playstore (perhaps UCC’s ban would have been more effective it had been put on Playstore).

While VPNs are largely said to be secure, a critical look reveals some VPNs are more secure than others depending on the different properties each VPN has been set up with. The properties largely have to do with security level implementation (such TLS, SSL, SSH, SSTP and many others)

The Pros
When you use a VPN, your ISP (and the government, in case it’s poking its nose around) will only see the network (VPN IP Address) you are connecting to. They will not be able to tell which websites you are actually visiting. The ability of any third party to intercept your communication stops at the VPN.

The following are some of the core advantages of using a VPN;

1) Unblock websites and bypass network filters. VPNs are great for accessing blocked websites or bypassing Internet filters. This is why there is an increased number of VPN services used in countries where Internet censorship is applied.

2) Online anonymity. Through a VPN you can browse the web in complete anonymity. Compared to hide IP software or web proxies, the advantage of a VPN service is that it allows you to access both web applications and websites in complete anonymity. Browsers like Tor may serve the purpose effectively.

3) Enhanced security. When you connect to the network through a VPN, the data is kept secured and encrypted. In this way the information is away from hackers’ eyes ( This is largely effective for private corporate companies that usually put a lot of emphasis on security.

4) Remote access and convenience. In case of a company, the great advantage of having a VPN is that the information can be accessed remotely even from home or from any other place. This is one of the ways in which having a VPN can increase productivity within a company as it ensures effective remote support.

5) Masking your physical location. Most VPNs are hosted in different countries that may be seen as traffic sources. It is one of the reasons government agencies have been unable to track and net people it considers security threats, such as social media critics like Tom Voltaire Okwalinga (TVO).

A VPN will turn you into an instant globetrotter, and anyone trying to track your movements will only be left guessing. During the recent elections, people were accessing the supposedly blocked social media from places like Pakistan, Venezuela, Sweden, Nicaragua and the US. Places they have never been to, physically. The folks that reign supreme at UCC were left with enough egg on their faces to feed the proverbial 5,000.

6) Reduced maintenance costs. Once a VPN network is created, the maintenance cost is very low. More than that, if you opt for a service provider, the network setup and surveillance no longer becomes your primary concern.

The Cons
1) The design and security implementation for a virtual private network can be complex.  This means that it requires a professional with a high level of understanding for the best type of VPN configuration and some of the security issues that can occur when using a VPN.

2) Internet trolling and location masking. Depending on which side of the fence you sit, this too may be a disadvantage. A disgruntled former employee can decide to soil a company’s reputation and will not be easily traced.

3) Access to restricted web sites such as pornography, dating and gambling sites as well as social media. In the wake of VPN technology discovery by many a non tech-savvy Ugandan, one social media addict expressed delight at the fact that they could now access pornography at the workplace without interruption from their smart-aleck IT guys.

This could become counter-productive in the long run. The newfound joy of bypassing supposed restrictions may result into reduced workplace productivity. The age-old adage that says forbidden fads are always sweeter suddenly creeps in, and an employee ends up spending more time on restricted sites than they should. This eventually results into wastage of company resources – time, money or otherwise.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Culture | The influence of deity allegiance on societal names

In many African cultures, societal allegiance to one's deity plays a significant role in Child naming. Many names have indirect reference to God.

Among the Banyankole/Batooro/Banyoro/Bakiga and related tribes in Western Uganda, you will find names like "Atuhaire" (variantly spelled as Atuhairwe, meaning God has given us - a child), "Asiimwe" (God be praised), "Tumusiime" (Let's praise God), Byamukama (All things belong to God) and many others.

Further south, among the Banyarwanda, you are likely to find names like "Nshimy'imana" (I give thanks to God), "Habyar'imana" (It's God that helps us give birth), "Ndikumana" (I am relying on God) and others.

In Chichewa/Chinyanja (Malawi/Zambia), people have names like "Mulungu" (God).

Across to West Africa, and particularly among the Yoruba, most names that reference God begin with "Olu". So you'll find names like Olufunke (God has cared for me), Olufemi (God loves me), Olusegun (God’s victory), Oluseyi (God has made this) and many others.

The Igbo equivalents start with "Chi", and include names like Chidi (God exists), Chibuzo (God leads the way), Chidimma (God is good), Chikere (God created), and Chinedu (God leads).

Dan A.  

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Tech | Safer Internet Day: How prepared are you?

In February every year, the world celebrates what we now know as Safer Internet Day (SID). Organized by Insafe (a European network of Awareness Centers), its principle objective is to promote safer and more responsible use of online technology and mobile phones, especially among children and young people across the world.

Internet safety is quite a broad subject whose scope of potential effects may range from privacy compromise and misuse to financial loss, emotional and physical harm. Back home, we ask: How have you prepared yourself to ensure your own internet safety?

A couple of days back, PC Tech’s Joanita Nalubega delved a bit into basic checks and precautions that could help you maintain or improve your browsing experience. Today, we look at a few more that will help you draw a comprehensive safety checklist;

1) Check for, and activate any additional security features (aside from the SSL already mentioned) that may trigger alerts you in case your profile is in danger of being compromised. These include email login alert for social media sites like facebook, yahoo and Gmail, as well SMS notifications.

2) Maximize the use of privacy features and settings on any sites that have these options. Again, social media is the biggest culprit here. Some people put their bio-data out there for every Tom, Dick and Harry. 

You visit someone’s profile and they have crucial information like phone number, date of birth, email and their spouses exposed to everyone. Only people you consider close enough should have access to this information.

3) Certain streaming websites (news, sports and other events) contain multiple adverts that may either be malicious or time wasting. Most of them have actually have provisions for closing the ads without necessarily visiting the embedded links, but these are usually made less conspicuous than the hoax close options that are always more prominent.

4) Turn off the location feature when posting social media status updates unless you are travelling to some place you don't know. It may make it easy for someone trailing you to locate you. Some smart phones have this feature turned on by default.

5) Regularly change/update personal security information such as passwords. Social media is awash with a number of applications and games that require the user to supply their passwords. You never know from which application someone will access your private information. 

6) Apply strict filtering on your email accounts to avoid running into spam emails. The same applies to social media accounts that are now awash with schemers and scammers.

7) Avoid using the same password on all your internet accounts - email, online transaction accounts, social media, forum subscriptions and professional group memberships such as LinkedIn. Granted, we now live in an era where we have tens (and probably hundreds) of PINs and passwords that we ought to memorize, but maintaining the same password for each medium is never a good idea.

8) Install and regularly update a strong anti-virus. Regular checks on trending anti-viruses may help. There was a time when Avast was the in-thing, then came AVG, f-secure, Kaspersky, Symantec (Which is still doing strong, I must add) and many others in between. 

9) Avoid download links that go through additional 3rd application downloaders. What do I mean? I have seen phones that cannot, for example, do direct 3rd application installations (such as whatsapp). In such cases, the app (or its update) has to be downloaded via a PC first and transferred via bluetooth before it can be installed on the phone. 

In some cases when a user just types "Whatsapp free download" (as an example), they are redirected to a site that requires them to get a third party application downloader first. Some of these are hoax download links that come with malware.

10) Take note of warnings regarding browser add-ons and plugins that may affect your browsing experience. One example here is Internet Download Manager (IDM). Some add-ons slow down, and may temporarily hang or crash certain browsers. This may happen when you are in the middle of a composing an important email and you will end up losing your (unsaved) data. 

Dan A.