What’s a VPN and why should I have one?

VPN
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I expect a large number of people have heard the initials VPN, and most of those understand that it is related to having a secure connection, and is usually related to connecting to work resources.  VPN means Virtual Private Network, and if you look it up on Wikipedia, you will find a large amount of information about the technology, its specifications, and history.  But, the important fact for us users is that VPN technology allows us to use public networks, such as the Internet, in a manner that keeps the information we are sending and receiving on our computer encrypted and secure from others using the Internet.

This happens in real time as we use the computer, and makes it very unlikely that our information will be subject to use by undesired persons.  This is precisely why businesses put forth the money required to establish a VPN network for their employees.  It allows those employees who routinely work away from the office to connect to office files and documents from remote locations using their connection to the Internet, which may be provided by a hotel, coffee shop, airport, or other facility.  When the VPN is enabled, and connects to the office server, all traffic sent through that connection is kept safe by encryption from outside sniffing.   Modern VPN connections cause a minimal decrease in connection speed, and are very easy to enable and disable.  Work VPN connections certainly do the job of securing connections to the office while allowing access to desired work resources.

So, if you are a business user of VPN, you are protected against undesired observance of your Internet traffic, even if you are using a WiFi in a public place.  Your information is encrypted prior to being sent over the open WiFi connection.  This protection makes it very unlikely that someone can grab a copy of your data out of the public WiFi signal.  Remember that in a WiFi connected situation that other users of the same WiFi hotspot are in fact sharing the same connection, and there are a number of programs available that will allow them to snoop on unencrypted transmission and/or unprotected shared folders and files.

If you have no need for a business VPN, do you still need one for your laptop?   If you use your laptop by connecting to WiFi hotspots in public places you should use a VPN.  As laptop users, we tend to make connections to email accounts, social media accounts, and login to a variety of other accounts that are protected by username and password.   Some of these connections are secure, some of them are not.  But it is a reality that the WiFi node you are using IS a great way for a hacker to “read your mail” and capture some of the data you are transferring.  Someone having your browsing history, a few selected login credentials, and your message regarding your view on your co-workers may not be things you wish others with malicious intent to possess.

If you would like to have a way to still have the convenience of using any public WiFi hotspot without the worry of becoming the next target, you should consider using a VPN service.  Unlike the corporate or business VPN, a VPN service does not provide an “end to end” encrypted “tunnel” for your data traffic.  It does provide a VPN encrypted connection from your laptop to their secure server, wherever it is located.  From that point your data traffic is released to the Internet to travel to your intended connection destination.  But, the VPN service does protect your data traffic in the most vulnerable place it can be hacked, the WiFi hotspot.

 

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Rex Davis

Rex Davis is the Director of Operations at the Identity Theft Resource Center. He has spent the last five years with the ITRC and his area of expertise is Information Security. Creating public awareness of identity theft and cyber security risks is his passion.