I am a fan of virtual private networks, or VPNs. By definition, according to Dictionary.com, a VPN is "a network that uses the internet to transfer information using secure methods." A longer and more detailed explanation can be found on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vpn.
Why should you or I want to use a VPN? There are several reasons.
First, any time you connect to the Internet, it is possible that someone else can tap into your Internet connection, if it isn't encrypted. One way to use encryption is to always connect to web sites using Secure Sockets Layer protocol, called "SSL." You will always see this when connecting to your online bank account, when entering private information into PayPal, and on many other web sites that handle sensitive private information. Look at the address bar in your web browser. If the address begins with "https" instead of the normal "http," you know you are using an encrypted connection. The letter "s" on the end of the letters http indicates you are using a secure, or encrypted, SSL connection.
Another method of creating secure connections is to use an encrypted connection and the easiest method of accomplishing that is to use a VPN. A VPN creates a secure, encrypted "tunnel" from your computer to a "gateway" on some remote server in a data center on the Internet. Technically, the encrypted, secure connection is only between your computer and the remote gateway. The rest of the connection from the gateway to the destination web server will be unencrypted. However, the security provided is sufficient to meet probably 99.999% of all security requirements. Only the military, a few government agencies, and drug dealers need higher security than that.
Anyone can theoretically tap into your unencrypted connection. However, using an open wi-fi nework really makes simplifies the process. Anyone using proper "sniffer" software while connected to the same wi-fi network you are using can see what you are sending and receiving on a wi-fi network or any other shared network at an airport, in a coffee shop, in a hotel, or even in your office, if you are not using encryption. If in a hotel, the guest in Room 503 can see everything you send and receive on an unencrypted connection, even on wired (non-wi-fi) networks.
Are you logging into a web site? The hackers can see your user name and password. The same is true for everything you send and receive in email and most everything else that is not sent to an "https" address.
The solution is easy: use a VPN. if you do that, everything you send and receive is encrypted and nobody connected to the same network you use will be able to see any of your information.
You might want to read my earlier article, "Stealing Credit Card Information from Wi-Fi Networks," that is available at http://goo.gl/Trvsr.
When traveling and using wi-fi networks or even when using wired networks in new locations, I ALWAYS use VPN software.
There are a number of side benefits to VPNs, besides security. For one thing, with VPN software, you appear on the web as a computer located wherever the VPN gateway is located, not as a computer at your actual location.
For instance, at this moment I am in Bradenton, Florida, USA. If I connect to the Internet without VPN software, all web servers can determine that I am in or near Bradenton. However, if I use a VPN to connect to a gateway in Atlanta, the web servers all think I am located in or near Atlanta. If I connect via a VPN to a gateway in Milan, Italy, all the web servers I connect to will believe I am in Italy.
What good is that? For some people, the ability to appear to be someplace else is very useful.
For instance, I am presently in a motor home that is parked in a campground in Bradenton. Cable television is not available in this campground and I can only receive a couple of local channels using the TV antenna on the motor home's roof. Unfortunately, the New England Patriots football team is playing the Baltimore Ravens in an NFL playoff football game right now and the game is not being carried on any of the few channels I can receive.
What to do? Simple. Watch the game online. Well, it's not so simple after all. It seems that the game is "blacked out" online for users in the United States and Canada. It is available only to web users in other countries. Anyone connecting from an I.P. address in the U.S. or Canada simply sees a screen that says the game is unavailable.
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