I keep hearing that I need a VPN. What is the story with VPNs?

It's about making your network connection private, in a virtual way. | 3/12/2020

If you have never used a VPN, you may be wondering about all of those Nord VPN TV and YouTube ads. If you have used one at your job, then you have some idea of how it works, and the effects are similar for consumers.  Let’s take a moment to review just what it means to have a VPN, and if you need one.

VPN means Virtual Private Network. Taking that backwards, we all connect to things through networks. And the network that scares us all is the Internet because there are so many bad people out there.  We would like for our activities to be private which means, we don’t want anyone peeking at our business, and tagging along for a ride. In cyberspace everything is an address that goes somewhere else, so we want this private network to be virtual, meaning it’s not tied to any one system, server, business and so on. Also it means you can have more than one.

If that makes sense then read on. Otherwise read it again 😊

Myths and facts about VPNs

VPNs are private, but strong security was not part of the original concept, and privacy did not always mean that you get encryption. To be safe on the Internet, you have to add encryption to scramble your messages, and security tests to authenticate yourself.  When using a consumer VPN, you need to have a strong and complex password that you do not share on other systems. 

Your PC and Mac can connect to many network destinations at once. For example, your home printer, thermostat, security camera, at the same time that you can watch NetFlix, do banking, and hook into your company.  This is exciting and dangerous at the same time.

Some VPN companies will set you up with a closed VPN. Closed VPNs stop any of your traffic from being visible. But closed VPNs can cause connection problems. If you are using a closed VPN, then your system may be unable to see the local network and the Internet at all while you are working with the VPN. That will cause you to lose access to places on the Internet and can make it hard to use your home printer, sign into hotel Wi-Fi and so on.

When VPNs are configured to allow you to see other places, this is called a split connection. With a split connection, you will be able to have secure communications to systems that are routed through the VPN, and still use the Internet and your home network to connect outside of the VPN. . This is a sometimes confusing  situation where you can still get attacked, and VPNs are incorrectly blamed for failures. Why? How? If you have malware on your PC or Mac, it may be able to look through your VPN, while sending your secrets out on the split public part of your connection.  That's why you need to follow security best practices at all times.

Forget the paid services for a moment. When you connect to a secure website with your browser, you are invoking a kind of VPN. You will know this is happening because the browser will give some sort of indication, such as showing a lock symbol on the address line, and the address itself will start with https. What happened? The website has authenticated you and started an encrypted session. But only for that website. You see, the default behavior for a browser is a split session, so you can have unsecured connections and secured connections at the same time. That's the sort of problem I described in the preceding paragraph.

So will a VPN help me at all? What should I do?

You can be reasonably safe without a VPN. Follow best practices. For example:

  • Don’t use simple passwords and don’t use the same ones for different systems
  • Save your passwords in a secure vault system such as LastPass
  • Make sure your PC, Mac, phone etc. are completely up to date on security patches
  • For PCs and Macs, you really should run an anti-malware tool. Windows has its own (Defender) and there are many third party tools.
  • Back up your important files regularly in case something really does go wrong.
  • Think three times before accepting any changes that require Administrator permission!

How many of the practices above are improved by using a VPN?

  • None are guaranteed to be safer.  Sorry.

Repeating the question! As a consumer, should I use a VPN?

VPNs give you new privacy options that are desirable. But your privacy has limits.
Consider:

  • A VPN will prevent your Internet Service Provider from tracking your Internet activity, so long as you conduct your activity within the VPN
  • It will not protect you from hackers, if the systems you connect to have already been compromised.
  • The systems you connect to through the VPN will know who you are if you have set up accounts on them. 
  • A VPN can help you to watch US-only programs from outside the USA (same for other countries)
  • It will not protect you from liability from rights management violations
  • A VPN will stop people from seeing your activity within the VPN if you are using a public shared network
  • It will not protect you if you access something outside of the VPN
  • It may interfere with your ability to use hotel, café and other networks that require you to be visible for registration and usage tracking.
  • If the VPN is using AES encryption, it’s the best privacy you can realistically achieve
  • If you have a weak password or you get attacked with malware, hackers may still find you, but you have made it harder for them.
  • Read the VPN documentation so that you understand when a connection will go into the VPN and when it will not. 
  • In my previous job, I liked to demonstrate capturing Internet (VoIP) phone calls while a person was using a split VPN - because the phone call was not configured to go through the VPN.

How many kinds of VPNs are there?

For consumers you have many choices including: NordVPN, AnchorFree, SurfShark, PrivateVPN, ProtonVPN, VyprVPN, ExpressVPN, SaferVPN and many more. Be aware that these services cost money.

Note that when you use a VPN you are diverting your traffic through another network, and it may slow you down.  The more you pay, the better the performance. And, if you are not a geek you will want tech support until you are comfortable.

Someone mentioned TOR…

TOR is a free, open source autonomy solution that uses a VPN. It can serve the same purpose as the paid services. Note, TOR is also the gateway to the Dark Web, a dangerous place! But it does not automatically send you there. That’s your choice.  

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