Q: I keep seeing the term VPN. What is it and how does it work?
A: This is a very good question. Not because it is difficult to answer – VPNs are pretty simple, really – but because they will be increasingly important to all of us as individuals.
Here’s why. We all know that our lives have become more mobile. Whether it is laptops, untethered from our desk, or smartphones untethered from landlines, we expect our communications to be ubiquitous and portable. But do we also expect them to be private?
Look at what’s changed. When we cut the cord of our phone or our desktop’s broadband service, we are replacing the hard-wired connections we had been using with radio waves.
Like any radio waves, all it takes is another radio receiver tuned to the right channel to listen in. Further, it is two-way radio, so anything that you send or receive is vulnerable. VPNs, as I will explain below, are needed to protect your wireless Internet communications from being intercepted by others.
A Little History
Early on, companies leased point-to-point lines from telephone companies to provide communication between their offices. These were called “private networks” and the lines were reasonably secure, since it would take a significant amount of knowledge and effort to break into them.
When the Internet began to develop, it became much cheaper to give up dedicated, physical lines and move corporate communications to the public network. The only problem is, that made communications much more vulnerable to being intercepted by others. The solution was to encrypt it. That way, no one could read, or, worse, modify, the information being transmitted. This became known as a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, and companies have been using them for at least fifteen years.
A VPN simply uses a public network to communicate securely between two points. The security is provided by encryption, and the two sides must both use the same encryption algorithm and key for it to work. This means that no one else can understand, or more importantly, modify the information being communicated.
But it takes a major corporate IT department, or at least a fifteen year old geek, to maintain a VPN.
That is important because you have no control over those radio waves that are bouncing around Starbucks or the airport lounge. At the same time they are being sent from the WiFi router to your PC, iPad, or smart phone, they can be listened to by anyone else in the room. It is frighteningly easy to do.
When you use a personal VPN like PRIVATE WiFi, it installs a small piece of software on your PC, which does the encrypting and decrypting. It connects automatically to a remote server which decrypts your communication and sends it on to the ultimate destination – whether that is an email account, a SMS user, or a shopping site.
We all now know that we need firewalls and antivirus software to protect our computer from being hacked. Similarly, I believe that everyone who uses a laptop, iPad, or smartphone needs a VPN to protect their communications from hackers in wifi hotspots. It is the last major unprotected risk.
Editor’s note: Have a question for Kent? Send in your question about wifi, Internet privacy, or any similar topic and we may feature that topic in an upcoming “Ask the Expert” column as part of our new, ongoing monthly series. Email your question to firstname.lastname@example.org.