Episode 35: June 27, 2012
by Eric Escobar
In last week’s episode, The Dangers of Unsecured WiFi Hotspots, we talked about how to keep your computer and your personal information safe when surfing wirelessly. In that episode, I promised to follow up with how to use a VPN for ultimate security while on the go. I’ll make good on my promise today.
Before I go on, I want to throw this disclaimer out there: This is a pretty advanced topic for your average computer user. But hackers get better and better at stealing your information on the web, so hold on to this information for your reference, should you decide to create a VPN in the future.
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What is VPN?
VPN stands for virtual private network. This was originally used by large companies who wanted to connect remote users to their main network. It wasn’t until the past few years that VPN services have become widely available to the general population of non-Fortune 500 companies.
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Some awesome things that you can use a VPN for include printing anything to your home printer (no matter where you are), accessing your home network resources from anywhere, and routing internet traffic securely through your own, safe network, rather than through unfamiliar territory.
Why would you want to do these things?
Why Use VPN?
Well, I think printing to your home printer is self-explanatory. It will save you from having to remember to do it later on, of course! The bigger and better use is to be able to access all of your network resources as if you were at home. This could include checking networked security cameras in your home or office, checking on your router status, media center status, and many other things. It could also allow you to access shared files from the network or another computer. This is really handy if you’ve forgotten a file on your home computer and are across the country!
All this VPN stuff may sound like magic, and pretty complicated…but fear not! I’m here to explain how it works and why you should consider using it.
As I said before, VPN stands for a virtual private network. This means that once your device joins the network, it is then connected to all the other devices in that network. This is just like connecting your laptop to your wireless router, only it’s virtual.
Once you have created this VPN, you can route your internet traffic directly through it.
But how does this protect you? Well, the real magic about VPN are the tunneling protocols that secure and encrypt your data. I won’t go in to the nitty gritty about these protocols because it would take many podcasts, but here’s the big picture view:
Let’s take last week’s example. Say you’re sitting in a coffee shop with your laptop computer. You’ve connected to an unprotected network and are happily surfing the internet. As we learned last week, connecting to an unsecured WiFi network is an invitation for hackers to perform a man-in-the-middle attack, to sniff out any of your internet traffic as it travels between your laptop and the router at the coffee shop. This could lead to identity theft and a whole host of unpleasant experiences.
But let’s say that you’ve listened to the Tech Talker podcast and installed a VPN on your laptop. With your VPN in place, a tunnel is created for your data to travel across. This tunnel is encrypted so that even if the network you are using isn’t encrypted, all of the information shared over the VPN is. Now if a hacker were trying to steal your data at that same coffee shop, they could see traffic coming from your laptop, but they would not be able to read anything—and that includes passwords, usernames, bank accounts, and other sensitive information.
How to Set Up a VPN?
So how do you actually set up this seemingly magical VPN? Well I’ve done the legwork for you, experimenting with many VPNs, and I’ve found that the easiest to use is Hamachi. This software is free and works on almost every platform. The only downside to using Hamachi is that you must keep your home computer running Hamachi if you want to connect to it. Keeping a computer on all of the time just for a secure connection may not be worth it to some people, but if you know you’re going out of town and will be using your laptop wirelessly a lot (or will need some files from your home computer), it’s definitely worth it. Plus, most computers nowadays have sleep features that will save energy when in sleep mode, and then automatically wake the computer when necessary.
There are other VPN solutions out there such as Strongvpn that don’t require you to leave one computer on at home, but they’ll cost around $100 a year. The main reason Hamachi is free is because you are utilizing your computer’s energy to power the VPN, rather than the server in some far away data center.
If you want to know more, check out the links I’ve posted in the show notes to setting up a VPN for yourself, along with some more detailed information on VPNs and how they work.
So here are your 3 Quick and Dirty Tips about VPNs:
VPNs create a secure tunnel through which your data travels encrypted.
VPNs can be hosted by a company or by yourself.
VPNs are the best way to keep your data safe on an unknown network.
This was a pretty advanced topic. I know I have a very diverse listener base that ranges from tech professionals to those of you who just want to know more about technology. I like to include questions from the whole spectrum, so your input is key. Let me know if you have any show topics you would like to see in a future episode and I’ll do my best to address them in future episodes!
If you have any questions about internet security or just want more info, head on over to the Tech Talker Facebook page.
Until next time, I’m the Tech Talker, keeping technology simple!