Articles & Columns » State of the Arts Tech Talk

I write a Tech Talk column for the bi-monthly newspaper State of the Arts, published by the Montana Arts Council. Below are my two latest columns, my archives are here and you can subscribe to my RSS feed with your feed reader or by by email.

State of the Arts for October/November/December 2017: Virtual Private Networks

(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 and PC Magazine

State of the Arts for July/August/September 2017: Tor, the Onion Network

State of the Arts for July/August/September 2017: Tor, the Onion Network

(One of my Montana Arts Council State of the Arts Newspaper Tech Talk Columns)

Last issue I wrote about Ghostery, an add-on to web browsers that helps block tracking of your browsing by advertisers as well as the websites themselves. That tracking results in lots of personal information being collected by ad servers and websites, demonstrated in one respect by ads that follow you from site to site.

But your web usage is still tracked by webservers and other parts of the internet’s structure and by your internet or phone service provider, because every time you get on the internet, your device has a unique, numerical address called an IP (Internet Protocol) number. You have an IP address everywhere you connect: at home, office, on your smart phone and on the free wi-fi at the coffee house.

That IP address can be used to track you, even on your phone, when the IP can change due to location, or on free-wi-fi, with lots of other users. If you have fiber or high-speed cable to your home or office, you likely have a fixed IP that never changes and is trackable to your door.

So what happens if you really want to be private and hide your true IP address? One way is to use a web browser that provides anonymity, such as the Tor browser. The Tor browser leverages the way the internet already works, but in a clever way to provide that IP anonymity.

The internet uses thousands of routers and servers all over the world to get your data back and forth, all selected by the internet itself to be most efficient in terms of speed, and all those servers and routers record your IP address at each step in the process.

But the Tor browser sends your data through random volunteer-operated servers all over the world before it gets to its final destination, and those volunteer routers strip your original IP address – and each subsequent IP – at each step in the routing process.

That’s the reason for the Tor logo being an onion; using Tor is like using the internet like an onion – all the layers peel back to show yet another layer of routers and servers, all hiding the core, which is your real IP address.

The Tor browser can be used as a stand alone browser on your desktop or phone, and can be run from a USB drive on a public computer. To be even safer, use Tor on a laptop on free wi-fi away from your home or office. But you don’t want to use Tor all the time or for sharing large files, as using that amount of bandwidth will break the volunteer-run service for everyone. Check for downloads and instructions.

Journalists, activists and everyday people use Tor to help protect their IP addressees and identities. Tor is not perfect privacy, which is very difficult to pulll off. But Tor is very good, and very easy to use.

Read more State of the Arts Tech Talk columns, or go to my Archives