Virtual Private Network
For a variety of reasons, VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, have suddenly become popular. It seems like you can not open a tech web site or news source without hearing that VPNs are the solution to all your security and privacy issues.
Sadly, that is not the case.
VPNs can be useful to solve a handful of specific problems:
- Sniffing: protecting your communications from being intercepted when using open WiFi hotspots.
- Relocation: making it appear as if you are located somewhere other than your actual location.
- Surveillance: protecting your communications from being monitored by certain third parties, such as your ISP.
When you use an open WiFi hotspot, you are broadcasting your information in such a way that anyone within range of the wireless signal can listen in, or “sniff.” Encryption is the solution. Even if someone does manage to see your communications, all they’ll see is unintelligible encrypted data.
When using a browser, ensuring that you’re connecting via an https connection achieves this. By definition, https encrypts your data as it travels the entire path between your computer and the site or service with which you’re communicating.
The issue remains, what about everything else? How do we ensure the privacy of not only non-https connections made by your browser, but all the other communications between software on your computer and the internet?
A VPN solves this by creating an encrypted “tunnel” through which all internet-communications are routed. This tunnel is set up between your computer and the VPN provider, thus protecting all of your communications crossing the sniffable WiFi connection.
A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between your computer and the VPN service’s servers, which has the side effect of making it “look like” you are wherever those servers are located. Several VPN providers allow you to choose the location from which you want to appear. One could easily change their VPN settings to make it appear as if they were in The Netherlands, Australia, or any number of other countries in which the VPN vendor has servers.
Recent news encourages people to look to VPNs to protect themselves from surveillance by their local government or their internet service providers (ISPs).
The good news is that almost any VPN that can perform the first two tasks (protection from sniffing and virtual relocation) is a candidate for solving this problem too. The same encryption that prevents a WiFi connection from being sniffed also hides the information from your ISP. The same relocation that makes it appear as if you’re in a different country also removes your traffic from monitoring by the country in which you are located.
Do you really need a VPN?
The ultimate question, of course is. Are you sure you need the expense, complexity, and added risk of using a VPN at all?
Unless you travel frequently, or are regularly involved in highly sensitive communications, you may not need one. It is very likely that simply remaining aware of the steps to use a WiFi hotspot safely, and applying those to any potentially suspect internet connection, could be enough.
On the other hand, if you do travel regularly, if you do need your connection to “appear” to be located in another country, or if you really have reason to distrust your ISP or local government, then selecting a VPN service may be an appropriate step.