The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman.
If you are concerned about anyone snooping on the Internet and seeing what you are doing (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, your internet service provider, or any of dozens of other companies that spy on their customers), you might consider installing a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between your computer and a distant server to let you conduct your online activities (visit the websites you want, make online transactions, download files) anonymously, without being tracked and spied upon. VPN technology uses a combination of features such as encryption, tunneling protocols, data encapsulation, and certified connections to provide you with a secure connection to private networks and to protect your identity. Luckily, VPN products are available for Windows, Macintosh, iPhone/iPad, Android, and Chromebook systems. One product will even work with Xbox, VoIP telephones, and other devices that do not allow for installation of networking software.
I believe my Internet connection at home is somewhat secure, although certainly not iron-clad. When at home, I perform “casual web surfing” with a VPN when conducting online transactions where my credit card information may be transmitted or to access any web site where I might be exposing sensitive information, even such things as my mother’s maiden name.
The biggest appeal for me, however, is when traveling. I always use a VPN when connected to the Internet through a wi-fi connection or via any other public network while in a hotel room, at the airport, in coffee shops, or anyplace else where I am dependent on someone else’s potentially insecure network connection.
If you don’t use a VPN, your internet connections can be subjected to spammers, snoopers, and hackers. These villains silently monitor your online activities and steal your sensitive data, including credit card information and passwords, when you least expect it. In many cases, they track your I.P. (Internet Protocol) address as you move from web site to web site. By tracking your online activities, these villains can learn a lot about you and your online habits. If you connect with a VPN, you get a new I.P. address to mask your actual IP address and to surf the Internet anonymously.
VPNs also provide other benefits. Perhaps one of the most popular uses is to bypass filters and firewalls set by your network administrator or by government censors so that you can access your favorite content anytime and anywhere you want. Perhaps you want to access a “forbidden” site from school or from the office. A more serious use is for citizens in countries with repressive governments that block some web sites or perhaps monitor web traffic to spy on the country’s citizens. Such repressive governments include Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and the United States of America. A VPN will block most government spies and simultaneously allow access to almost anything available online.
Many corporations use VPNs to allow remote employees or customers to securely access company servers for business purposes. If your company has trade secrets that need to be protected (and what company doesn’t?), a VPN may be the answer. A genealogy society that posts data for its members’ use may have the same concern as a company, so a VPN can meets their need for privacy as well.
Another use is to allow access to sites that restrict access to one country, such as many of the online movie and television video streaming sites. Such sites include Netflix, Hulu, and several others. If you want to watch U.S. television programs or Netflix movies from another country, a VPN network that connects to a VPN server in the U.S. will allow such access.
For instance, you may be sitting inside a coffee shop in Dubai; but by connecting to a remote VPN server, you can appear to connect to the Internet from another location (i.e. San Francisco or New York) which hosts the VPN server you’re connecting to. This enables you to bypass regional Internet restrictions and get access to content (i.e. YouTube, Facebook, BBC) or Internet services (i.e. Skype, Gmail, Signal, Zello, etc.) that are otherwise restricted or censored in the location you are staying in. I have used a VPN to watch the U.K. version of Who Do You Think You Are? while I was in the U.S.
A VPN provides a secure, encrypted connection between your computer and a VPN “gateway server” located some distance away. Your encrypted data gets decrypted at that “gateway server” and then gets sent on to the web server you are accessing at the moment. The information being sent shows that it originated at the I.P. address of the “gateway server,” not from your local computer. This makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, for anyone to track down your real IP address and pinpoint your geographical location.
VPNs encrypt traffic in both directions. That is, both the information you send and the information you receive is encrypted, although everything you see on your computer’s screen looks normal. Encryption for devices connected to a VPN goes beyond just web browsing. It includes VoIP communication, Skype, emails – anything that uses an online connection.
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