Column: VPNs are not just for hackers anymore
Do you browse the web in incognito mode? Use two- factor authentication? Avoid Facebook? That’s a good start.
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Do you browse the web in incognito mode? Use two- factor authentication? Avoid Facebook? That’s a good start. But if you consider yourself privacy savvy — someone who practices good information hygiene — you must use a virtual private network, or VPN.
To a certain generation of netizens, VPNs are primary tools of circumvention, a way to get around pesky policies or laws. Indeed, the dozens of VPNs vying for your business will obliquely, or blatantly, advertise how they help you to access services outside the U.S. or run BitTorrent anonymously.
VPNs are also part of the everyday carry of corporate road warriors who need to access their company’s systems safely. You could even use a VPN regularly for your job.
But VPNs should be a part of your technological arsenal even at home, and at the local Starbucks, and at the hotel in Las Vegas.
For all the measures you put in place to protect your information and secure your accounts, the one entity that still knows everything you do or every place you go is your internet service provider. This could be the company that gets your home online or the Wi-Fi operator at the mall — anyone who stands between your computer or phone and the internet.
Indeed, like most “free” services, that complimentary Wi-Fi is usually offered in exchange for the valuable and interesting information that can be gathered from all the data-hungry mall walkers who connect without a second thought.
A VPN provides two critical security measures: First, it gives you an encrypted, and thus private, “tunnel” through the wider broadband pipe that everyone shares. Second, it lets you emerge from that tunnel from a variety of other points around the world.
Encryption makes it impossible to unscramble the information flowing back and forth from your device. A diverse selection of network nodes masks your actual geographic location.
How do you select a VPN? Again, there are dozens of popular services and hundreds of fringe options. Web reviews are a good place to start, if you keep in mind that most online reviews are influenced by referral fees and search engine manipulation. But here are a few criteria you can weigh, depending on what’s most important to you.
Price is probably where most people start, and there are “free” VPNs. The fact that the word “free” needs to be in quotes should tell you all you need to know about these options. Cheaper VPNs, meanwhile, will have fewer nodes, or slower networks. In my view the experience is likely to be poor and discourage you from using a VPN at all.
Performance is where I’d put my focus. The size of the network usually determines the speed of the VPN. Hundreds of nodes spread around the globe give you plenty of options, and usually mean you’ll always be able to get a solid connection. Of course, a large network is more expensive to run and thus pricier to use.
Whether the VPN keeps logs of its users’ activities is an important factor — even if you’re not doing anything you shouldn’t be. If a government or nefarious entity demands or tries to steal these records, the best scenario is one where the records don’t exist.
And look for a VPN that works across all the devices you use, from your computer at work to your laptop at home to your smartphone.
Finally, if you’re especially cautious, you can look for VPNs based outside the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand — members of the “Five Eyes” alliance that trade surveillance and intelligence. And you can check for a “warrant canary,” a tiny statement hidden in the fine print that says, “we have not been served with a subpoena.” When that statement disappears, it’s time to find another provider.
Whether you’re merely cautious or outright paranoid, a VPN should be in your tech toolkit.
Ryan Ozawa is communications director for local tech company Hawaii Information Service, and a lifelong technologist. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @hawaii.