Like a digital cone of silence, a Virtual Private Network stops people eavesdropping on your online business activities.
VPNs have been in the news lately, mostly to do with the government’s metadata retention scheme, web filtering plans and piracy crackdown. It’s easy to think that VPNs are only useful for people who have something to hide, but they have plenty of legitimate business uses.
So what is a VPN? It’s basically a secure encrypted tunnel that runs from your computer or mobile device, out across the internet to a VPN server. Nobody between you and the VPN server can peek inside the tunnel to snoop on your online activities.
When should you use a VPN? They’re not just for spies and pirates, VPNs offer privacy and security for anyone using a potentially insecure internet connection. If you’re using wi-fi from a public hotspot, cafe, airport lounge or hotel room, can you be sure the network operator isn’t monitoring your online activities in search of sensitive information? Can you even be sure that you’re connected to the right wi-fi network. People have been known to set up bogus wi-fi networks in public places to lure people in.
Even if you’re using a hotel’s in-room internet connection via an Ethernet cable, there’s still the potential for someone to snoop on your traffic – whether it be an unscrupulous network administrator or hackers who have infiltrated the network. Eavesdropping on the internet traffic of hotel guests is a great way to pick up sensitive business information. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this kind of thing only happens in the movies.
“They’re not just for spies and pirates, VPNs offer privacy and security for anyone using a potentially insecure internet connection.”
It might sound paranoid, but if you’re using a potentially untrustworthy network without a VPN then you might be shouting out your secrets for those around you to hear. Do you make house calls to clients, or even your competitors, and use their internet access? Quietly engaging your VPN might be a sensible precaution if you’d rather be safe than sorry.
Using a VPN doesn’t just let you stop people nearby looking over your shoulder, it also lets you bypass any monitoring put in place by the network provider or Internet Service Provider. They can see that you’re using a VPN, but they can’t peer inside to see what you’re doing. This makes a VPN a useful tool for bypassing web filtering and metadata retention if you’re concerned about the privacy and security implications.
So how do you use a VPN? Some businesses run a VPN server in their office, letting staff make a secure connection back to the office while they’re on the road. If this is beyond your reach then an easier alternative is to subscribe to a VPN service for a few dollars per month. There are free options, but paid services tend to offer a faster and more reliable connection.
Once you’ve signed up for a VPN and have your login credentials, it’s easy to set up a VPN on your computer, smartphone and tablet. All these gadgets have built-in VPN settings, or you might be able to download software from the VPN provider. Once your VPN is configured you can turn your cone of silence on and off with the press of a button, it only takes a few seconds to connect.
Keep in mind that if you’re using an online VPN service then you’re only making a secure connection to the VPN server, not all the way to the websites that you’re visiting. Other people on your local network can’t eavesdrop on your internet traffic, but there’s still the potential for someone to snoop on the second leg of the journey. Even if you’re using a VPN it’s still important to look for the HTTPS security padlock when using sensitive websites like online banking, to ensure that you’re making an encrypted link all the way along the line.
First published May 2015.