The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman.
This is an update to Plus Edition article published about a year ago. The information in that article was accurate when published, but the available technology and services have changed since then. Prices have also decreased by nearly 50% in the past year. This new article should bring the reader up to date.
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 using normal connections, it is theoretically possible that someone else can tap into your Internet connection and monitor it if your connection isn't encrypted. Indeed, using an open wi-fi network really simplifies the process of eavesdropping and makes it easy for a hacker to capture all the data you send and receive. If you are not using encryption, 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 in an airport, a coffee shop, a hotel, or even your office. 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.
The required software to tap into someone else's unencrypted connection is available several places free of charge, and at least one product is very easy to use. Details may be found by starting at http://goo.gl/WuMpx. Who knows who is monitoring your connection, your user IDs, and your passwords? However, if your connection is encrypted, potential hackers are locked out and can see nothing.
One way to create secure connections is to 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. Many banks and other financial institutions use SSL connections to securely transfer millions of dollars every day. I am sure that, when you connect to your bank, an SSL connection is required. You can look at the address bar in your browser to see this for yourself.
Another method of creating secure connections is to use a VPN. A VPN, or "Virtual Private Network," creates a secure, encrypted "tunnel" from your computer to a "gateway" on some remote server in a data center on the Internet. A VPN connection has several advantages over SSL connections, some of which I will explain in a moment.
Technically, the normal encrypted, secure VPN 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, Mafia lords, and drug dealers need higher security than that.
With a VPN, everything you send and receive is encrypted, and nobody connected to the same network that 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. Using a VPN will eliminate that problem for you.
When traveling and using public 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 Orlando, Florida, USA. If I connect to the Internet without VPN software, all web servers can determine that I am in or near Orlando. 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 London, England, all the web servers I then connect to will believe I am in England.
What good is that? For some people, the ability to appear to be someplace else is very useful.
For instance, let's say that I want to watch a genealogy television program, such as the British version of Who Do You Think You Are? It is available as a video on the Internet but is restricted for use only by viewers in the United Kingdom. Would-be viewers in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere are blocked from watching the videos. Yet, with a VPN, I can connect to a gateway in the United Kingdom and then access the video of Who Do You Think You Are? Since I appear to be using a computer in the United Kingdom, I am able to watch the video. All this works well even though I am physically in Florida, USA.
Another use of VPNs is when oppressive national governments monitor every bit and byte you and I send and receive across the Internet connection. We normally associate such restrictive government monitoring with Communist countries or Arab countries or a few dictatorships. Use of a VPN in those countries allows users to hide communications from their governments.
Are you aware that an agency of the United States government also scans the world’s electronic information, including phone calls, e-mails, and financial and travel records? Yes, the ol' US of A qualifies as an "oppressive national government." Details of the government's "Total Information Awareness" systems may be found by starting at Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utah_Data_Center, the New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/23/opinion/whos-watching-the-nsa-watchers.html?_r=0 and in a few hundred other online articles that you can find by starting at http://goo.gl/qA5LV.
You can foil much of this government monitoring, although perhaps not all of it, by using a VPN.
In addition, many companies track information about you, including your IP address. Your IP address is always visible in normal (non-VPN) connections, even in those connections using SSL. Your IP address is a unique identifier, sort of like a phone number. Not only can it be quite easy to match up an IP address with its owner, but it also reveals your general location and other information about you. Every single website you visit using this IP address is recorded by the website owner, your Internet service provider, and others with the knowledge to do so. This information may be stored for years and years.
You may be amazed to see how much information your computer is sharing with every web site you visit. A VPN service prevents this from happening by issuing you an anonymous “stealth” IP address that makes it impossible for your true IP address to be captured. Nobody will be able to see your real IP address – not even your Internet service provider, any website you visit, or any search engine.
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