Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tech Column: VPN Is Your Friend

by Bill Adler

For a long time I resisted thinking about VPNs. I resisted incorporating a VPN into my Internet life. Why? Mostly because I didn't know what the heck a VPN was for, and didn't want to know. Now that I understand, I am fully on top of the VPN thing. I want to explain, in the proverbial 25 words or less, why you should get and use a VPN, too.

Let's get the acronym out of the way first. VPN is a virtual private network. Here's what a VPN does and why you absolutely need one before your next trip anywhere. There are two kinds of wifi connections you can have: encrypted and non-encrypted. An encrypted network encrypts your data before it leaves your computer, smartphone or tablet. But when you're on a public hotspot, all of your data is out in the open, ready to be sniffed, collected, and analyzed for username and password combinations.

Amtrak's wifi network isn't encrypted, for example -- and you can bet that there are some juicy passwords transmitted on the train between Washington and New York. That man in the gabardine suit may be using his laptop to collect bank, email, and other valuable passwords that people type and that are sent over the unencrypted network.

To the rescue comes the VPN, which lets you encrypt data even on an unencrypted network. A VPN acts like a secure tunnel between your device and the website you're using. Not using a VPN on a public network is like having a Post-it on your laptop with your username and password written on it -- anyone passing by can see it.

You can get free or paid VPN software for PCs, Macs, smartphones and tablets. I use Cloak VPN, on my iPad and iPhone. Open VPN and PublicVPN are options for PCs and Macs. Hotspot Shield offers VPN apps for Android and iPhones.

There are other ways to keep prying eyes away from your data, too, when using a public network. I'll write about those in future columns. But for now, it's a wild world out there on the Internet, and you can be safer with VPN.


Bill Adler is the co-publisher of the Cleveland Park Listserv.  He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets," http://amzn.to/rspOft. He tweets at @billadler.

1 comment:

  1. Two small issues:

    A: Only the Acela supports VPNs

    B: What kind of bank doesn't use secure HTTP for its online account system? I need to know so I can be sure to never ever do business with them.