Why You Need VPN

October 2017

Protesters who were involved in attempting to disrupt President Trump's inauguration were a bit nervous this summer when news headlines announced that the U.S. Department of Justice was seeking to obtain the IP numbers of those who accessed the website that helped organize the event (disruptj20.org).

But some people weren't worried, because by using a VPN, they had made sure no one would ever be able to find out their IP—the unique number associated with their computer that could be used to identify who they are.

VPN stands for "virtual private network," and there are a host of reasons that people are beginning to take advantage of these services.

When you use a VPN, no one can know who you are, where you are, or what you're doing on the internet. And no hacker can steal your personal information when you go online. As you can imagine, VPN services are getting quite popular.

I've only used a VPN service once. There was a tennis match that I wanted to see that was being streamed online. But…. it wasn't available to viewers in the U.S. So I used a free trial account offered by a VPN, which allowed me to conceal my location. When I accessed the website that was streaming the match, it appeared to that website that I was in the UK.

Think how useful this would be to someone in China, where the government restricts which websites people can access. By using a VPN, people in China can conceal where they're located and what websites they're accessing.

To understand how it works, first recall how the regular internet works. An IP number is like a street address. When someone wants to get to your house, you give him or her your street address so they know where to find you.

Your internet provider assigns your computer or smartphone an IP number. ("IP" stands for internet protocol) When you click on a link on a webpage, you're not only sending a request for the particular text and images that you want to see, but you're also sending your unique IP number so the website knows the unique address of your computer or phone. The website then associates your IP number with the text and images that you've asked for, and the internet uses that IP number to route that information to you.

In the process, of course, you're exposing a lot about yourself. Your internet provider, for example, could know what web content you're requesting (and in fact the government has decided that providers can sell this information). In addition, the website you're accessing has a record of your IP number. And more.

A VPN changes all that. When you request a web page using a VPN, software on your computer or phone first encrypts that request. Anyone trying to peek can't see what you requested. And then, instead of that request going to the website that has the information, it goes through a "middleman": a VPN server located in some corner of the world.

That server then sends the request to the website. Voila, the website sees the request as coming from the VPN server, not your computer. It then sends the web page to the VPN server, which in turn encrypts it and sends it to your computer, which then decrypts it. And the web page then displays on your monitor. No one can know what your IP is, or what content you're viewing.

One of the biggest computer security dangers you face is using public WiFi. It's easy for someone to steal your personal information. But if you're using a VPN service, your personal information is encrypted before it leaves your computer.

Another advantage will come if the FCC scuttles net neutrality. As I write this, there are rumors that Verizon is deliberately reducing the bandwidth of customers who are using their service to stream Netflix videos. But with a VPN, there's no way Verizon can know which websites you're accessing. Presto, you have net neutrality regardless of what the FCC decides.

What's it cost? You can typically pay in the range of $5–$10 per month, or $50–$100 per year. Of course, you'll want to select a reputable VPN provider, since you're entrusting quite a lot to them. Private Internet Access claims they don't keep a log of your activities. NordVPN claims to use the strongest encryption and logs no user data. It's also easy to use. Both these services have a good reputation.

Another option is the free Opera web browser, which has VPN built in. But it only encrypts web data, so other data, such as your email isn't encrypted. Plus, it's now owned by a Chinese conglomerate, which concerns some users.

Note that these VPN services are also typically available for smartphones and tablets.

© 2017 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen