April 10, 2020

Have you heard of the dark web?  You know, that scary underground place that people always talk about on tv shows when talking about the “hacker” world?  Well, you’ve come to the wrong place if you’re looking for a tutorial on how to get there.  Sorry.

But I am here to talk to you about VPNs, or Virtual Private Network.  So, when you’re out in public and you have no choice but to log on to that public WiFi network.  But wait!  Are we supposed to log on to the public WiFi?  Won’t the hackerz steal our data?

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Well, yes and no.  To be blunt, public WiFi isn’t secure and we should be limiting our use of it.  But if we must (work deadlines happen, I know), we should have two-factor authentication set up,  we should be mindful when traveling, and we should set up a VPN, which is why we’re here today. 

What is a VPN? 

Basically a VPN is going to create an encrypted tunnel between you and a remote server that is operated by your VPN service.  Now all of your internet traffic is going to be routed through this tunnel, keeping all your data secure from people trying to steal it along the way.  In addition to that security, it is now going to look like all your traffic is coming from somewhere different – your VPN server, which is also masking your identity and location. 

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So, let’s walk through this with a real life scenario.  Imagine a day when we’re back to our weekly travel and as we’re leaving for the airport we get a frantic call from our boss about a deliverable that didn’t get out on time.  You just got to the airport… what do you do?  Ideally, the deliverable could wait, but this isn’t a perfect world.  We know we shouldn’t connect to the open airport internet without any protection – how do we know if the WiFi network is legitimate or if there are any prying eyes? (We can, but it’s not that simple)  Now, if we connect using a VPN, all our traffic is going to go through an encrypted tunnel, and the traffic is going to look like it is coming from an IP address within our VPN service, protecting our data and masking our identity.  So we still need to be cautious, I wouldn’t recommend connecting to your bank from there, but you’ve made yourself a hard target to the average cyber criminal.

This is also beneficial at home because our internet service provider (ISP) has tremendous insight into our browsing history.  Like in 2019 where the FTC began an investigation whether ISPs have sold any personal information.  So whether you’re on a Windows device, Mac, Linux, or even your phone or tablet, you can and should get a VPN to protect your security and data. 

Note – a VPN is not going to anonymize your activities online.  Using a VPN doesn’t mean you’re all of a sudden using the dark web.  That’s a whole separate topic that I’ll probably get into eventually.  It also isn’t going to necessarily stop you from inadvertently downloading malware as many cyber threat actors have figured out ways to defeat VPN services.  But it will help ensure you aren’t an easy target.

Note 2.0 – some web sites don’t like VPNs and won’t let you connect to their services if you’re using a VPN.  Like Netflix.  Do you like Netflix?  I know I do.  Well, Netflix doesn’t like my VPN.  So if I’m watching Netflix while traveling, I have to chose – VPN or Netflix.  Basically, this is a way of stopping people in country X from saying they’re in the United States in order to watch our shows.  There are some VPNs that are constantly developing and looking for ways to get around this limitation, but Netflix is also doing their own part to make sure they’re keeping up with blocking these VPNs. 

What do we need to look for in a VPN?

There are obviously many factors that come into play when deciding what VPN service we want to use, after all, whoever we choose is going to have access into our computer and all of our personal information.  Listed above is in no particular order, with the exception (in  my opinion) of logging.  My number one when looking for a VPN is whether or not they log my data.  From there we want someone that is flexible, meaning cross compatible between our many devices (laptop(s), phone(s), tablet(s), etc.), has enough locations to choose from when picking our server, is securely encrypting our data at rest and in transit, and of course, is maintaining and stable and fast connection.

A VPN service is just one easy way to mitigate our risk. It’s not perfect, and it’s not meant to be. But it goes a long way in helping to ensure we keep our own personal information secure.

So, I hope I’ve scared you (just a little bit) into wanting a VPN.  And honestly right now is the perfect time to get one because it seems like everyone is having a sale due to the influx in working from home.  But now what?  My advice in choosing a VPN is to figure out what is important for you and go from there. Do you want speed? Low cost? Security? No logging (yes!)? Do some research, there are plenty of reviews from tech companies on VPNs, like here, or here, or here, and go from there.

Personally, I have NordVPN and ProtonVPN on both laptops and my phone.  And my Norton Antivirus also has a VPN capability I haven’t set up yet.  I used to use Nord more often because it was easier to use, but I’ve been liking Proton more lately, partly because I also use their secure mail service, Proton Mail.  I would say Nord is better for the average user, wheres Proton is going to give you more toys you can play with.  Overall, I think ProtonMail is a little more security focused, so long term I feel better about their standards, but it’s hard to beat Nord’s pricing model and ease of use. 

This is Proton. It really is as easy as clicking quick connect (above), and it will connect me to whatever country I choose.

**This article is also available at http://www.allymarie.net/what-is-a-vpn-why-should-i-use-one/ **

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