Computer Column #357
In the past, we have suggested using Virtual Private Network (VPN) software for guarding your data against spying while using a public Wi-Fi network. VPN software has become better and more useful, so we will update the information. An unrelated bonus download fills out the column.
Virtual Private Networks are an immense subject. One could get a college degree in computer science by specializing in the subject. VPNs were originally conceived to allow corporations with big computers in multiple cities or countries to have secure links between the computers as data flows through the many servers that make up the Internet. All data is encrypted to the highest standards as it leaves the company’s local computers and decrypted at its destination. This is done using standard tools or “protocols” built into the Internet.
Simplified VPNs for individuals and small businesses provide an extra margin of safety on the Internet. Your computer’s built-in firewall, up-to-date antivirus software, and a VPN work together to improve online privacy. Commercial simplified VPNs make available many servers, often worldwide. As the user logs on to a website, the VPN establishes an encrypted “tunnel” between the user and the website. No one along the way can understand the exchange of data.
Users of laptops, tablets, and smartphones use one of these simplified VPNs to avoid a hack called “man-in-the-middle.” A mobile device remembers the network name and password when it uses a public Wi-Fi in an airport, motel, bar, coffee shop, shopping mall, school, or public library. It takes very little equipment and software for a hacker to set up a phony Wi-Fi with the same network name and password. The mobile device may automatically log on to the phony Wi-Fi next time it encounters that network name. For a little more money, the hacker could make the phony Wi-Fi more powerful than a nearby business or home Wi-Fi and fool desktop computers into logging on, too.
The hacker relays your communication to the intended recipient so you are none the wiser. However, the hacker can read every word passing through. Passwords, bank account names, credit card numbers, and other personal data can be stolen. If the data is encrypted by a VPN, the hacker gets nothing but gobbledegook.
These VPNs can also hide your location. Websites can detect the location of a visitor with a few lines of code. This will report the location of the VPN server, which might be Madrid, Hong Kong, or Chicago. This feature is used by nefarious people who wish to hide themselves. For the virtuous, it protects personal data in the Internet privacy swamp. Location blocking is not perfect. If a website asks you to reveal your location, clicking approval will reveal it.
Rarely, a VPN running on a computer or mobile device will switch itself off. Users have to keep an eye out for this. An icon is usually visible on a computer indicating that the protection is still running. On mobile devices, there is a similar indication such as a skeleton key silhouette next to the Wi-Fi fan at the upper right of the screen.
Websites that download or stream material such as movies or sports events go to great lengths to identify the true location of a VPN user. The site may not have rights to distribute copyrighted material in all countries. VPNs may fool a news website or a shopping search. Searching for a lodging in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was given locations in Santa Fe, Argentina. When this happens, turn the VPN off temporarily.
Your bank may be suspicious of a log on from a remote VPN site instead of your usual location. Expect to get identity verification questions and an are-you-a-human-being test. A VPN also provides considerable ad blocking, but it may interfere with ad blockers installed in your browser.
Disadvantages? There are costs for the software and server use. A VPN connection will probably be a bit slower than an ordinary connection, but this has been significantly improved in the last year. Your Wi-Fi provider and your computer or mobile device may slow down with certain VPNs.
There are people who say VPNs are unnecessary, but many choose to err on the safe side.
Installing a VPN
So many VPN software tools for the common user have blossomed recently that it is hard to choose one. It is similar to someone who has never driven or owned a car trying to buy one. There are three “Best VPNs of 2018” lists from respected sources at the end of article (1, 2, and 3). (The sites will include advertising.) Read these and go to the links of interesting ones. Get a feel for what features are most interesting.
Find products that seem to fit your needs. Make sure software for your computer and apps for your mobile devices are both available. Try free trials if available, or sign up for one month at a time. We found prices ranging from under $3 to over $11 per month, all with large discounts for six-month or annual billing. Test data rates multiple times with a speed checker such as Ookla (4).
Most VPN providers keep no log of your web browsing, but read the terms of service carefully. Some services are not based in the United States and may not be subject to U.S. privacy laws. Read user reviews and decide whether you can trust such a service.
Many other products can be found by Internet search. Some will offer free VPN, but you may get what you pay for. They may be missing key features that must be paid for later. Others will claim VPN can be set up on your Wi-Fi router (the box with flashing lights) alone. Only a network and security expert is safe messing with a router. Purchased VPN software takes care of any needed router settings.
Finally, I have used anti-virus software from the same company for two decades. Because I trust it in security matters, I pay its mid-range price for VPN software.
The National Audubon Society has made 435 plates of Birds of America by John James Audubon (1785-1851) available free as very high-resolution downloads (5). It takes some time to find your way around the website. I downloaded plate 211, the Great Blue Heron, for display at home. Its dimensions are an amazing 9494 x 11,532 pixels with 8-bit color. RonyaSoft Poster Printer (6) prints large pictures on a computer printer inexpensively.
I found no indication on the website, in the image data in the downloaded files, or on the images themselves that there is a restriction on their use. Of course, the society hopes you will become a member, subscribe to its magazine, and buy its birding products, but it is a grand gesture.
Links mentioned in column
(1.) Best VPNs – PC Magazine:
(2.) Best VPNs – PCWorld: www.pcworld.com/article/3198369/privacy/best-vpn-services-apps-reviews-buying-advice
(3.) Best VPNs – CNET: www.cnet.com/best-vpn-services-directory
(4.) Ookla: www.speedtest.net
(5.) Audubon: www.audubon.org/birds-of-america
(6.) RonyaSoft: www.ronyasoft.com/products/proposter
Originally published in the October 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest