In light of the current pandemic and increased cyber threats as outlined here by the Harvard Business Review, a VPN might be a worthwhile investment in the fight against crime, especially now that many are on lockdown and are working from home.

I’m sure most of you have heard the term VPN or Virtual Private Network.  In fact, in order to remotely connect to your work network, it’s typically required.  But why?  What does this mysterious, virtual thing actually do?  Did you know it’s not just available for business use?  You can implement a personal VPN solution as well.

Let’s back up for a second.  So, you are home on a Friday night, surfing the web through your home Wi-Fi connection.  Big deal, right?  I’m not at any great risk, right?  The answer all depends on your definition of big deal and your opinion on privacy.

The best way to think about this is to follow the flow.  Your phone or computer connects to your home router, which then connects to your internet service provider (ISP).  You are then redirected to the website you wish to visit.  (Now here’s the point where you might begin to care and understand how things you were just searching for begin to appear on your Facebook feed.)

All of your internet traffic passes through your ISP’s servers.  This means they can see and log everything you do online.  Where you shop, what you searched for, what videos you watch, which posts you liked, and on and on and on.  Then they may even pass your browsing history over to advertisers, government agencies, or other third parties.  Oh, and by the way, this applies to your cellular provider as well.

This is what a VPN can do for you.  A VPN directs your traffic to a specially configured remote server, therefore, hiding your actual IP address (your location).  More importantly, it encrypts all the data you send or receive.  Encrypted data appears as gibberish and is impossible to read by anyone who obtains it.

Now let’s move into the public arena, for example, an airport or coffee shop that provides a public Wi-Fi network.  A lot of people think, there’s a password required to get on, so it’s secure!  This also depends on your definition of secure and your opinion on privacy.  Any idea of who might be keeping track of that network traffic?  Are you even sure the hotspot is legitimate?  It could be setup by a cyber criminal using the man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack.  (In a nutshell, the MITM attack is a form of communication eavesdropping.  The hacker intercepts a communication between two people or systems.)

For example, a hacker walks into a Starbucks (sounds like the start of a bad joke), sits down and turns on his laptop and router that he named Starbucks FREE Wi-Fi with no password.  A customer is online and sees the network pop-up on their device.  It says Starbucks, so they connect and begin to shop online.  Maybe they log into Amazon.  Even worse, they login into their bank account to check their balance. BOOM!  The hacker now has your login credentials.  Yes, it’s that easy.

With a VPN enabled on your device, all the data flows through an encrypted tunnel and appears as worthless gibberish.  Even though the cyber criminal was able to intercept your data, they won’t be able to decipher it.  I know what you are asking yourself,  “Why doesn’t everyone use a VPN?” Seems like a no-brainer.

Well, here’s the catch.  There are some definite cons to implementing a VPN.  Here are the top three:

  • For starters, using a VPN might actually be illegal in your country. Some examples include: China, Iran, Iraq, Russia, and Turkey, to name a few.
  • Probably the biggest complaint by far is performance issues. Due to the added routing and configuration of the remote servers, your request may take noticeably longer to load the website.  It will impact your browsing speed and, in a world of instant gratification, a few extra seconds may be unacceptable to the consumer.
  • The VPN service might monitor your activity in exchange for free or low-cost use of their service. Do your homework when shopping for a VPN.  PCMag provides their review of the top VPNs here.

Now that you know the pros and cons of implementing a VPN, is it right for you?  My advice… well, that’s  irrelevant.  It’s a personal choice that only you alone can make.  Safe surfing!