What is a VPN and why you need one NOW.

By | October 19, 2016

Sure you have nothing to hide, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t

What is a VPN anyway?

You may have heard a lot of talk lately about VPNs or Virtual Private Networks.  You might even use one to access your workplace network while you work remotely.  At a very basic level a VPN is a tunnel through the internet.  Confused yet?  Don’t be, I will make this simple.

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Normal Case

Normal day-to-day traffic on the internet passes through several servers and routers on it way to it’s destination.  When you fire up your browser and head over to Google to look for the latest cat videos, that page request leaves your network and passes into the World Wide Network of the internet.  Your request is handled by packets, much like a letter, that has an address and a request.  Each stop at a router along the way, the router looks at the packet to see where it is headed and where it came from.  This allows anyone to track where your traffic is going and what it is you are looking at.  That information is really valuable to people who want to market stuff to you.

Now let’s add in the VPN

That tunnel I told you about.  This is where a VPN is really valuable.  It takes your information to another network first.  A dedicated path is made from your network to another.  In the case of your work VPN it make your computer work like you were sitting in the office connected to the network there.  For a commercial VPN provider it works the same way.  So now any page requests you make will appear to be coming from the new network you are connected to.  This allows your computer and home network to be masked from the outside world by the VPN provider.

It keeps those who wish to track all your movements online, unable to.  I think the best analogy I heard was that with normal internet traffic, it is like you get in your car and leave your driveway.  Someone can easily follow you from home, to work, shopping, picking up the kids to back home again.  Using a VPN is like you drive from home, to an underground secure access garage, switch cars and then go about your day.  Anyways who was tracking you will have lost you.  Now, this won’t stop really motivated people from tracking your online moves, but should cut down on a lot of the online tracking you experience.

There are some other great articles out there about how a VPN works and why you should use one to cover your movements online:

Like this article at Lifehacker.com or PCWorld.com

This sounds nefarious, will I get in trouble with the Internet Police?

No, there is nothing wrong with using a VPN.  What you do while you are using the VPN may wander into some illegal areas, but what is and isn’t allowed is based on your local jurisdiction.  If you want to use a VPN while connected to public WiFi to hide your personal info, which is the most common use, it is perfectly fine.  Of course if you are at work and you use a non-work VPN to get around their security protocols to play fantasy football or build your empire on eBay, then it’s between you and your employer.  Another use for VPNs is to make your computer appear to be in another country.  This is great can allow someone to access content on the internet that may be restricted to a certain country or region, think BBC iPlayer.  If you are in a country that blocks internet traffic, like China, you can use a VPN as a way around it.  Now governments like China to block access to VPNs, so one that may work today may not work tomorrow.

Some streaming content sources are also starting to block known VPN IP addresses.  So using a VPN to bypass pay-to-play content may not always work.  A VPN will also not protect you from ransomware or malware or anything else you download to your computer.  The VPN won’t make you invincible but it will protect your travels around the internet.

Alright, let’s tunnel to the truth

I use a VPN when I am out on the road and I have connected to hotel WiFi.  I don’t need their servers knowing what I am doing, even if it is just streaming movies on Netflix.  It is just a level of protection and a layer of anonymity that makes me feel a little better.

So how do you get a VPN?  There are several companies out there that provide VPN services, a quick Google search will provide you with many different options on who to chose.  I have experience using TunnelBear.  They offer a free account that has a data cap, but you can request free data by sending a tweet once a month.  They also offer some affordable pricing plans with more data available.  The free services do work if you need quick access to check email on a public wifi connection and that all you use it for.  If you plan to stream movies or TV shows I would recommend buying up to a subscription.

Here is an article at PCMag.com that covers some of the other VPN providers.

Look for an article here soon about how to encrypt your email also, so the people you send your email to, are the only people who get to read it.

Bottom line

For your protection and peace of mind you really should be using a VPN to mask your activities online, even if what you think you are doing is harmless.  The VPN will keep your sessions from being tracked and might cut down on the creepy ads that always show you the stuff you were just shopping for.  Even after you already bought it.  That alone is worth the price of admission.  There is a lot of bad stuff on the Internet, might as well protect yourself.  A VPN is a great way to make sure what you do on the internet is known to you and to you alone.