With WiFi becoming an increasing presence in our lives, we are connected to the internet more than ever. Even the London Underground is online, with around 80 stations having WiFi connections available to the public. However, the convenience of being able to access the web at all times has implications for our online data. Any time you use a computer, tablet or smartphone on a public network, the data you send is vulnerable. This means that by sending an email, logging into Facebook or checking your bank balance using a public network you are potentially allowing others to spy on your private information. Such connections are easy to snoop on because the various links between your device and the internet itself are not properly secured. Unfortunately this means that use of public connections can leave important information such as passwords and bank details to be harvested by those monitoring the connection.
An effective way to protect yourself from your data going astray is a VPN. A VPN, or virtual private network to use the full name, is an encrypted connection that transfers your data to a secure server hosted by the provider, where it can be unwrapped and passed along to where you want it to go. This encryption allows your data to pass by the vulnerabilities in a public network without being read by those with malicious intentions. By doing this you can continue to benefit from the wide availability of internet connectivity without putting yourself at risk of having data fall into the wrong hands.
This is reason enough to install a VPN if you are a frequent user of public WiFi networks. There are other advantages to using one though, even on a home computer on a private network. Campaigners for online privacy recommend VPNs as a way of protecting your right to anonymity online. Data sent through a VPN will not display your IP address, but the address of the server where your encrypted data is sent. ‘Bad Science’ writer Ben Goldacre likens this to ‘using an envelope rather than a postcard‘.
A VPN can also greatly benefit remote workers, particularly those who spend time abroad. Commercially sensitive data can be passed to and from central offices with the same level of security as the company’s internal network, and geographically restricted content can be access by using an IP address from the relevant area.
Setting up a VPN is simple and only needs to be done once on any device. Once set up it has no effect on the running of the machine or its connectivity to the web, but you can relax knowing your data is secure.