VPN – What is it and why it won’t protect you

Hi, everybody, it is Saturday, I need a shave but there’s a lot of things going on. I got my coffee this morning and I have a few things to talk to you about.

I want to talk to you about VPNs. Why you need one and why they aren’t the answer to all of your problems.

Let’s start with what is a VPN? A VPN is a Virtual Private Network that creates a secure, encrypted tunnel between your computer and another computer located somewhere else. Typically that remote computer is connected to the internet. What this means in practical terms is that all of your internet activity appears to be happening on the remote computer. And because there are probably lots of people using that same computer for their VPN, your activity is combined with theirs which makes it very difficult to determine what you as an individual are doing. That’s a VPN.

You’ve probably heard ads for them if you listen to podcasts or if you watch any kind of tech news at all. Even on some mainstream media outlets, we’re starting to see ads for Virtual Private Networks. You may have seen the brand names Tunnel Bear or Express VPNas they have become more aggressive in their marketing.

So why should you have a VPN? The online world is getting progressively more and more intrusive. Your data is being collected and sold by everyone from social media platforms to your internet service provider and your cellphone company. That’s a topic for another day. But the outcome of this is that every time you connect your computer or phone to the internet, there are lots of folks who are collecting information about you. This doesn’t mean everyone is up to no good. Just like everything else, data collection is a tool. It can be used for righteous or nefarious purposes. But when you are using an internet connection that might be a little suspect, it becomes more important to protect yourself.

So VPNs are most important if you spend a lot of time on an internet connection that you don’t control. That means a coffee shop, an airport, or any kind of retail outlet. If you’re in a big-box store and they have Wi-Fi you don’t know what the security measures in place are for that Wi-Fi. So it’s very difficult to tell what’s happening with your information.

A VPN takes any network traffic of any kind that is leaving your device whether that’s your laptop or your phone or something else and it encrypts it and it sends it to another computer that is owned by the VPN service. Then it is decrypted and spit out onto the Internet to go on its merry way and continue its journey to wherever it was supposed to go.

For example, if you are checking your email and you open up gmail.com on your browser your machine encrypts that so nobody else can see what it says. Then that encrypted request is sent off to the VPN server far far away. The VPN server decrypts it and kicks it back on the internet and then it goes to Google’s servers where it is recognized as a valid request to check your email. Google will quickly grab the messages in your inbox and send them back to you via the VPN. So they come back and hit the VPN server gets encrypted again and brought back to your computer.

All of that is a very long way of saying it makes your traffic more secure.

The other reason to use a VPN is to “geo-shift” yourself to make it appear as if you are in another location. If you want to watch Japanese anime and there is no Japanese anime on Netflix in the United States you can connect your VPN service to a location in Japan and as far as Netflix is concerned you are in Japan. So when your VPN is running you get the Japanese catalog of shows which means there’s probably some anime shows that you wanted to watch that aren’t available in the US.

Conversely, if you’re traveling and you are in Japan but you are trying to do something that can only be done within the United States you connect back to a server in the United States with your VPN and all of a sudden, voila! You are magically transported back to the United States (as far as the Internet is concerned).

There are some great benefits to using a VPN. It is not, however, the answer to everything. While it makes you more secure it only makes you more secure between your location and that VPN server. There may be a lot of things in between you and that VPN server that you will be very happy to avoid like that gentleman sitting at Starbucks spying on customers’ web traffic while he sips his latte. Or the Internet Service Provider at the coffee shop who want to log every website customers go to so that they can sell that data to marketing companies. So the VPN is a privacy mode. A way of shielding your web traffic from a variety of prying eyes.

But as soon as it hits the VPN server it is and sent on to its final destination you still have to be aware of security concerns. The VPN is a very important tool to protect your data from a variety of malicious actions on the part of other people.

So if privacy in that regard is important to you, a VPN is critical. However, the VPN is not the end of your security puzzle. You still need to take the securing of your accounts and your information seriously and engage in a couple of other steps that I will be talking about in the future. One of those is multi-factor authentication. Another is strong passwords along with encryption of your data both on your local machine and wherever you happen to be storing it.

If you’d like to hear more on this topic or if there’s another topic you would like to know more about I promise I will have shaved and comb my hair next time and we will see you all again soon.

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