(One of my Montana Arts Council State of the Arts Newspaper Tech Talk Columns)
I’ve covered Internet and personal security issues here in the past because it’s a fact of life that you simply can’t know too much about how to be secure online. We all should know how to be careful with logins and passwords, be able to identify sketchy websites, and not open email attachments from people we don’t know. But there’s an extra step you may want to take when using wireless internet away from home.
In the bad old days, Wi-Fi was free and open and at any coffee shop or motel you never seemed to need a password to get on the Internet. Now, there are hotspots everywhere, but fortunately, security is more on everyone’s mind, so many public wireless networks are set up to require a password to connect. That password encrypts your Internet traffic so it can’t easily be intercepted wirelessly and your information stolen by someone.
But like anything, public Wi-Fi with a password can still be dangerous to use. There are scenarios when your information can still be grabbed when everyone is using the same password, or the whole network be “faked” by someone in order to steal all the traffic that flows through it.
If you do anything more in casual browsing and email when traveling, you should really step up your security. The solution is to use what is called Virtual Private Network, or VPN, which means exactly that: it’s your own private network inside that Wi-Fi internet connection.
A VPN sets up a tunnel that provides a secure path for your data inside the “regular” internet connection and is nearly impenetrable to snoopers and hackers. A VPN is different than secure banking and online store websites that use https and you see a green “lock” in the browser address bar in contrast to other sites are not https secure. A VPN encrypts all traffic between you and your web destinations.
A VPN can be especially important if you connect to your own business network while on the road. You’ve got a lot more to lose if someone intercepts your traffic, because then they can possibly get into your own network. You can also use a VPN at home for extra security with your internet service provider.
Like anything, VPNs used to be difficult to use, but not anymore, and many VPNs are pretty much transparent to use and you don’t have to do too much in order to take advantage of the security. Many VPN providers have easy-to-use Windows and Mac installers and web-based systems to get you running, even on mobile devices. This still can be pretty geeky stuff, so if the added security of a VPN sounds good, but you need help getting set up, ask your local teenager to help.
Some of the different VPN providers offer their basic services for free; others offer free trials and thirty-day money back guarantees. You can check out current reviews of VPN services at two popular magazines, CNET https://goo.gl/K5ujYK and PC Magazine https://goo.gl/jbbU7M