You’ve probably seen articles recently about how evildoers can scam, skim, and snoop your private information for their financial benefit. Besides encouraging you to wrap yourself in a cloak of paranoia once appropriate for a Cold War spy – “no one is who they seem to be” – these articles inevitably discuss VPNs, Virtual Private Networks.
OK, let’s break that down.
Network: You know what a network is, right? It can mean a lot of things, actually. In this case, let’s take it to mean the internet.
Private: Communication across the internet can be dangerously public. Folks with the right hardware and software in the right place can snoop what you send down the line. Sometimes all that’s necessary is to monitor who you communicate with; what you say doesn’t matter. For example, the company that provides your home internet connection may be watching the websites you visit. Why? Because they sell the information to other companies that use it to target ads, judge your credit-worthiness, perhaps even decide whether or not to approve your insurance application.
Virtual: A colleague once said, “Whenever you see ‘virtual,’ substitute ‘pretend.'”
So a VPN is a “pretend network designed to keep your information private as it travels across the internet.”
You can think of a VPN as a “pipeline of encryption.” Once you install it on your phone, pad, or computer, all information travels through the pipeline and is, thusly, private.
You are most at risk when using a wi-fi network outside your home. You know, the one at the coffee shop, the airport, the sketchy cafe in Istambul. The highest threat level is reserved for those “friendly” wi-fi networks that don’t require passwords. They may not encrypt data at all. So it would be pretty easy for someone to see what you read and write.*
A VPN will not render you invulnerable to cybercrime. If you give someone your banking credentials or let the guy “from Microsoft” take control of your computer, you are still screwed.
Roughly a squillion companies offer VPNs. Some are free, some cost. If you pick a free one, you’re nuts. Programmers cost money, and the thousands of server computers required to run a VPN cost money. If you’re not paying to use the VPN, where does the money come from?
The company running the VPN can, if they choose, see everything inside of your “pipeline of encryption.” Like your internet provider at home, they can market your activity; worse, they might see things you’d rather keep to yourself. Many free VPNs are located in China and other places that are best avoided.
I’ve run my own VPN for several years. This is the closest to “trusted” I can get, but I still have to trust the cloud company that provides the computer my VPN runs on. For various reasons too geeky to go into, I would not recommend running your own VPN, particularly if you travel.
This leaves the paid VPNs.
I’ve tried many, including every one that you will see listed in the top three on any recent “best of” article. I eliminated them all for one reason or another. I won’t list them all and explain my reasons, but if you write to ask about a specific one, I’ll give my opinion.
I’ll make it simple for you: read the VPN review in Wirecutter. It’s the best coverage of the subject that I’ve seen. My choice is the same as theirs, and for the same reasons: privacy, support, speed, and cost. Consumer Reports also took an in-depth look at VPNs. Their report sheds light on the gap between what some VPN companies say versus what they do to protect your privacy.
If you want an easy-to-use, trustworthy VPN at a reasonable price, go with Mullvad, a Swedish company that checks all the right boxes and none of the wrong ones.
Read the Wirecutter review, and the Consumer Reports article, then check out Mullvad.
*This is an oversimplification. Even without a VPN, much of the information on the internet is encrypted. But the bits that are not can cause you grief.
Thanks, Steve! That cleared up a lot of things! I knew what they did, but not how they did it.
We were encouraged to invest in one on the PGMC trip to China several years ago.
Now I know what the V and the P stand for! Love, MEB
Now you can play up AND down the network!
Good timing on your recommendation for Mullvad, Steve. I’m at the Dublin Airport waiting for a delayed flight to Manchester to visit old friends for Easter (the Salem’s – James, Alan, and family members. These were the folks who made the whirlpool baths Tom and I sold in the 80’s. Have remained friends over the decades), and Mullvad is providing a safer browsing environment…. I hope. The problem I am having is that I am a novice to VPN’s and the one thing lacking in the Mullvad site is “how to use the Mullvad VPN.”
For example, once I connect to Mullvad, am I now automatically hidden from any public Wi-Fi network I join? Or do I have to direct my phone to use Mullvad in some way? Nowhere in their FAQs or user guides can I find the answer to this question. So I emailed Mullvad. Awaiting their response.
As I often find with tech companies, there is an erroneous assumption of what a user already knows, and the FAQs and user guides skip right past the beginners. I don’t need a Mullvad guide to “Split-tunneling,” “Shadowsocks,” or “Bridges and Proxies.” I just want to know the basics. Like “is connecting to Mullvad before I select a Wi-Fi network all I have to do?”
Had a great evening with Drew in Dublin last night. Will return to Dublin Monday for a 3 week adventure with Drew. Lots of hiking, traditional music and pubs. I am sure I will have a great accent when I get back.
Mary Anne and I have been trying to get back to Ireland. We had tickets booked when COVID hit. Have next year? Say Hi to Drew for me.
Regarding Mullvad, or indeed any VPN, once you install it on your phone (or tablet or computer) and turn it on, you are done. Everything entering and leaving your device travels through the VPN tunnel. VPN protection remains even when you leave one Wi-Fi network, switch to cellular data, then join another Wi-Fi network.
For best performance and protection, pick a Mullvad server near you.
Also, find your way to Preferences and you can turn on options to block Ads, Trackers and Malware. I do all three, but it’s up to you.
Have a great holiday!
Congratulations! And enjoy. Should be a marvelous change. -m