Virtual Private Networks – It’s not just for the enterprise any more

When I was gainfully employed, like most folks who depend upon technology in the workplace, I used a company supplied virtual private network (VPN) to remotely access the corporate network. Though the primary purpose was to securely access services within the corporate Intranet like email, it also provided a secure link between my computer and the entrance ramp onto the Internet, effectively locking out anyone trying to access my computer from the public Wi-Fi.

As I noted in my last post, Cyber Security at the Sochi Games, security is at best a crap shoot when using a public Wi-Fi and at a location like the Sochi Olympics almost a certainty that your device/computer will be attacked.  Governmental access is also a concern when using a cellular connection.  The way to better secure your device/computer is to use a VPN.

The way a VPN works is to establish a SSL connection between  your computer/device and a server in the Cloud. This secure link is the same type of link as when you bank on-line. However, unlike your bank, a VPN server provides entree onto the Internet. The public WI-FI  at say Starbucks only transports the encrypted bits back and fork.  The VPN software locks out any other data transfers. Think of this as a tunnel between your computer and the Cloud.

Until recently, VPNs were complicated technologies to set up and maintain, which made them less than useful for consumer use. However, that’s changing.  In this post, the solutions I’ll discuss support not only Macs and PCs, but mobile devices. This post will focus on Macs and PCs and I’ll follow up in a future post about configuring these for your devices, since it’s a little more complicated.

I’m currently using a cloud solution by called  Private Tunnel. You sign up for the service, download an app to your computer, then when you want a secure VPN connection, you connect via the app. Until you disconnect, all traffic will be securely tunneled through their servers. This makes using a public Wi-Fi solution much safer.

The first 100 MB of traffic is free, then there are several options for paying for data transport from $12 for 50 GB through $50 for 500 GB.  The cost matrix is here.

Another solution is ProXPN.  Again, they provide a free or a paid service. The free service data speed is throttled and it’s missing some functionality. The Premium service is $6.95/mo and includes unlimited data and support for your devices.

So, by now, I’ve pounded in the importance of using a VPN when using a public Wi-Fi.  If you’re using a public Wi-Fi or any non-secured network, you should use a VPN.  However, there are other reasons for using a VPN:

  • Anonymous IP address — Every time you access a website, your public IP address (the one assigned to you by your ISP) is recorded on the website servers. This website meta-data is available with a court order or in some countries to governments without a court order. It’s also used for data mining for targeting ads and other commercial uses. With a VPN, the VPN IP address is recorded not yours.
  • Bypassing Web access controls — Some countries like China and Iran restrict access to various sites that offer political and historical alternatives to the party line. VPNs effectively by-pass these restrictions. Please note that in authoritative countries, it might be illegal to use a personal VPN.

A few notes:

  • Many Cloud services are getting pro-active about detecting when they see as someone trying to hack into your account. Since VPN IP addresses are anonymous, that might set off an alarm. For example, when I started up my VPN for the first time, my Gmail account access failed and I received an email indicating that someone was attempting to hack my account since the IP address was from California not my known public IP address. For Gmail, I needed to reset the Captcha server. (Captcha is a technology that looks for “bots” pretending to be humans.) Fortunately, Google provided a website for me to reestablish my identity.
  • Personally, I’ll likely only use the VPN when on public Wi-Fis. Also, with hard ethernet connections at hotels, I’ll use a VPN connection.  At home, I’m not as concerned. Though I’m not crazy about various entities knowing my public IP address and where I’ve browsed, I can live with it (for now).

I’ll end with a note about data security. VPNs only secure the link between your computer/device and the VPN server. Once the data goes out over the Net to/from the VPN server, it’s no more secure than without a VPN connection. This means that your email is still readable on the Net without encryption.

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