If Oprah was a little more tech-savvy, and if more people knew how dangerous it can be to use the Internet, she might start one of her shows by pointing to an audience member, “You get a VPN!”
That audience member would clasp their hands to their face, at first in disbelief, but then pump them up and down in unmitigated joy.
The audience would clap in appreciation.
Turning to another audience member, her voice rising in excitement and anticipation, Oprah would say, “And you get a VPN!”
And that audience member would jump up and down, squealing with happiness. A wave of cheers and claps would spread across the studio audience.
This would be unheard of — no TV show has ever given away not just one, but two VPNs as gifts to the audience.
Oprah would then turn to the camera, throwing her arms into the air and shouting with unbridled glee, “Everyone gets a VPN!”
And the confetti would rain down, and the balloons would be released, and the audience would shout hurrahs, clap, faint, and celebrate for the remainder of the hour. The ratings for that show would be the highest of all the shows in Oprah’s TV history. And the lucky hundred people who attended the Oprah show that day would have a more secure future online.
So, what’s all this fuss about VPNs?
Well, recently Congress voted to repeal a law that protected Internet surfers from having their ISPs sell their data (see, for example “The House just voted to wipe away the FCC’s landmark Internet privacy protections” and “How Republicans Sold Your Privacy to Internet Providers”. While this might not sound like a big deal, just think about what you do online.
I mean, think about what you really do you do online.
What websites do you visit? Who do you email or text? What products do you buy? What terms do you search for in Google? What pictures do you look at or what videos do you watch?
What do your children do online?
Currently, since you must connect to your ISP to get to the Internet, your ISP is able to see ALL the unencrypted information you send or receive during your time online. With the repeal of this law, which the President is expected to sign, your ISP would be able to also sell that information to third parties.
So, for people with health problems, mental health problems, relationship problems, vices – those who care about not having their children’s Internet usage monitored and sold to third parties – or those who just value their privacy – all that data is of extreme interest marketers, hackers, criminals, creeps, and foreign governments — that motley crew would all love to know more about you and your habits and problems, and are happy to pay your ISP for your juicy data.
If you care to keep your information from your ISP’s snooping eyes, then you might be interested in using a VPN. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It’s a technology that allows you to communicate from your computer to another computer privately – all traffic is encrypted (protected) between the two.
Therefore, a VPN allows you to connect to a site on the Internet you trust — a trusted VPN service provider, where all the traffic between you and that site is encrypted (protected), bypassing your ISP. Your ISP would just see random 1’s and 0’s and would not be able to snoop into your business.
Therefore, using a VPN might be one of several choices you might want to consider to help keep your business your business.
One problem is that choosing the right VPN is complicated for the average person. Not only is networking, encryption, and TCP/IP a rather technical area — NAT! AES! IPsec! Packet Headers! MAC Addresses! Bits! Bytes! — but there are VPN solutions that work better for some user needs than others.
Is security your concern? Privacy? Un-geoblocking? Bypassing a restrictive firewall? Price? Speed?
And there are some VPN providers who also sell your data, like ISPs, or who might be operating out of a country with even more lax Internet laws and regulations than the US. So, before signing up for a VPN service, you really need to consider your needs and read the fine print on any contract you make with a VPN provider. And be careful about the “Top VPN services” websites you see – many of these reviews are written by VPN affiliates – they get a kickback from the VPN company if someone signs up for a VPN service using their link. What they say might be true about the VPNs they are writing about, but just be aware those relationships can exist.
Here is a site that contains, from what I’ve found so far, the best comparison of various VPN services: thatoneprivacysite.net/ — click on “VPN Section” for simple/detailed VPN comparisons, things to consider when choosing a VPN, and in general more than you can ever want to know about VPNs.
And just know that using a VPN is not a security silver bullet — not only can you use a VPN incorrectly, but there are also many other ways you can be unsafe and insecure online. A VPN, correctly used, is just one tool we can use to help protect us.
So while VPNs in specific, and using the Internet safely and securely in general, can be tricky areas, given that more and more we are spending more time and putting more of our lives in digital form and on the Internet, I think we need to try to understand this digital world and navigate it the best we can to protect ourselves and our data. In fact, I think “how to have a safe, secure, and prosperous digital life” is worth a more careful look, and I’d love to write more about it, if anyone knows an agent. 🙂
NB: One important final word. If you feel convinced and up to the task of trying to set up your own DNS solution, perhaps using one of the above choices, know that the process can be more complicated than it should. Unfortunately too many of the security solutions offered today, in my opinion, require too much of the user. I hope this changes — we really need better solutions.
Be safe, and I’ll see you on the Interwebs.