Rich Warren | The mysterious world of VPNs | Scientific technology

In honor of Halloween, we dive into the magical and mysterious world of virtual private networks.

A reader asked him if he needed a VPN, the Internet version of a ghost:

“I was wondering if you could delve into the inner workings of VPNs. I have Express VPN, which seems to work pretty well, but I’m not sure what it does and doesn’t do for me. I realize that it anonymizes my location so that other sites will think I’m in Chicago, but I’m not sure how that protects me from tracking or other privacy breaches.

A VPN is a sleight of hand that makes you more or less invisible on the internet, or at least gives the impression that you are somewhere, or sometimes even someone, that you are not.

A VPN specially encrypts your communications and then, as the reader notes, routes them through one or more network servers other than the one provided by your Internet service provider. So a snoop or hacker must first break the encryption and then find out who you are and where you are.

With hacking and fraud rampant these days, internet users are looking for protection. A VPN offers some of the infamous ghouls who try to intercept and / or steal your data. This applies whether it is to access your bank account, make online purchases or send emails. If you’re using your phone’s cellular data connection, its encryption usually offers protection but won’t absolutely obscure your location.

Regardless of all the publicity, a VPN doesn’t necessarily benefit many, if not most people. If you’re transacting the internet from your home using an Ethernet cable or properly password-protected Wi-Fi connections, a VPN offers modest additional security other than hiding your location. If you live your life in Espresso Royale, Panera, or other public Wi-Fi places, a VPN offers an extra layer of security.

Some users illegally employ VPNs to trick content providers, such as Netflix, into viewing programs not offered in the United States or their hometown (such as sports) or their home country. A VPN can position servers in countries around the world, so Netflix thinks you are in Morocco rather than Muhammad.

While some VPNs offer a free tier, these are limited and often fraught with limitations. Almost all VPNs have two negative aspects:

  • They can get expensive. Most start with a basic level at around $ 5 per month, which works out to $ 60 per year, and many cost two or three times as much.
  • They also slow things down. By bouncing your data through a remote server, email and web browsing slows down considerably. I tried a major VPN and unsubscribed after a week as all internet activity on my phone tested my patience.

Another consideration concerns the integrity and location of the VPN. There are at least a few dozen VPNs vying for your business, and they are able to spy on your data if they want to. This is especially true for those based in parts of the world with flexible legal systems and lacking Internet safeguards.

VPNs provide a layer of protection for those who may be lax about their computer security or who operate in particularly vulnerable areas, such as hotels and cafes. I will have a column with some safety suggestions this winter.

One reader pointed out that I confused “gigahertz” with “gigabits per second” in my last column. I wrote, “In anticipation of future improvements to the Internet, the Ethernet input is 2.5 gigahertz.” My mistake. It should have been 2.5 gigabits per second.

Finally, after contacting my credit card company and the Better Business Bureau, I finally received a recalcitrant partial refund for the used router that I returned to purchase your, also operated as dontlease

Dealing with this company was not pleasant and I do not recommend doing business with it. If you don’t believe me, read their user reviews on the Better Business Bureau website.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime consumer electronics critic. Email him at [email protected]

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