What is a VPN and Do I Need One?

Does a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, protect me online, and is it something I need to have?

Low angle of tangled wires in server room at television station

You may have seen some commercials on TV lately, or overheard someone at the local coffee shop talk about their VPN and wonder what the heck they are talking about?

A VPN (virtual private network) is a secure network connection from your computer to a secured point somewhere on the internet. It helps keep your internet traffic encrypted and hidden from those around you at that coffee shop or airport lounge.

Should you use one? YES!!!

What is a VPN then, in simple terms?

Think of it this way if you will.

A normal unsecured internet connection while at the coffee shop is like a multi-lane interstate highway, everyone is allowed to use it. While you’re on this busy interstate everyone else there can see everything about your car and it’s passengers. They can see your kids fighting in the back while you pick your nose and change the radio station.

A connection secured by a VPN on the other hand is still that busy interstate, but now you’re travelling in a cloaked armored vehicle.

People can sense you’re there, but they cannot see inside. They have no clue how many people are in the vehicle, that’s because it’s armor plated without windows.

There is no ability for them to tell where you are going, what you are doing or saying and there is no way for them interfere with you going about your way. Short of ripping up the interstate which is unplugging the router.

Why should I be worried about public internet?

While it’s not a given that someone at the same coffee shop as you is a hacker waiting to steal your information, someone else there could have an infected computer that’s spying on you. And hopefully your websites are all running SSL (a secure encrypted connection) so your information is somewhat secured, I still highly advise that you take it to the next level.

There are programs available for kids and “wannabe hackers” to download that allow them to click and run programs to sniff your internet traffic. That allows them to potentially sniff out the bank you use along with the username and password you just typed to login. If they get your email credentials, the rest of your digital life will fall in line for them.

If you use public internet, at a coffee shop, airport, hotel or any other location, you really need to fire up a VPN before you do any work. Remember that armored truck, get in before you head to your destination.

Where do I sign up for a VPN?

There are numerous VPN services available and they range from free to $70 per year or more. Depending on your needs, budget and paranoia level here are a few I’ve used and suggest.

For the basic coverage at the rock bottom price of FREE, give the Opera VPN a try on your mobile device. It’s a quick install and you can get connected and protected with just a few taps. They do have a paid plan that allows you to choose a connection area, so you can make it look like you’re on the internet on the West coast. It also offers access to additional settings that promise to speed up your connection, a VPN will normally slow things down a bit.

OperaVPN

My current VPN service is a paid offering from Private Internet Access which offers “Fast, Safe & Secure VPN Access at Only $3.33/month.” I’ve found their service to be pretty speedy, numerous choices for the termination point of the VPN (where I want it to look like I’m located at) and I’ve not experienced any downtime issues.

Another service I’ve used, I switch a lot to test them out, is WiTopia. They have a large number of destinations and a pretty good support team. When I had some issues with a renewal a short time ago, they responded in a timely manner and had be back up and running. I’ve actually still got an active subscription and use it back and forth with PIA.

While I haven’t tried the last VPN on my list, it’s queued up for my use here shortly, it’s been getting some very good reviews. NordVPN shows to be one of the more expensive options available, but like the cliche goes “you get what you pay for”. One of the biggest attractors about NordVPN is their strict “no log” policy. Typically VPN providers keep a log of all the connections used, who used them, when, where. These have been used in several cases when the FBI came knocking and ended up with hackers or others being arrested.

I don’t condone using a VPN for nefarious activities, but if you’re truly concerned about privacy and anonymity then consider a VPN with a strict no-log policy like NordVPN.

For the small amount that a good VPN service costs, I honestly think this is an “extra” service you’d be wise to sign up with. You may not need to connect it 100% of the time, but it’s a habit you should get in whenever you’re connecting to public WiFi.

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Written by Jake Schaaf

Jake has been a tech geek his entire life starting with the Commodore 64 his parents bought him at the age of 13 around 1990. His experience and knowledge is mostly self-taught and through real-world experience. Some of that experience includes a stint in communications with the Army National Guard. He is a husband and father and enjoys making memories with his family. He is also an entrepreneur that has built a well respected and growing IT consulting firm.

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