I’ve dedicated a lot of articles to the dangers of the World Wide Web.
Our personal information – credit card numbers, bank account information, social security number – will sell for a pretty penny online, and hackers are relentless in their hunt for more product.
Just the other day an old friend of mine, wary of losing control of all this valuable data, asked me if a VPN would be a good way to help shore up his defenses, or if it would be overkill. This question is not uncommon, and is a smart one to be asking.
Before I dive into my answer, let’s start with the basics.
What exactly is a VPN?
A VPN, or “Virtual Private Network,” is a secure, encrypted tunnel through which you can connect from your device to a server without fear of interception.
We often hear about VPNs in a corporate context, where they’re used as a form of remote access; when a company’s team members work from home, they can use a VPN to (privately) connect into network servers over the internet. The idea here is to prevent any unwelcome parties from using your connection to also gain access your company’s network. The technology generally stems directly from your office firewall, but can also be software-based.
At the consumer level, VPNs generally come in the form of a software subscription, where you “rent” a secure connection from the provider. Using that secure connection as your vehicle to the internet, the VPN would essentially cloak your web traffic from prying eyes by making your IP address and your activity unintelligible to hackers, advertisers, and even your ISP.
So, do you need one?
You might do well to investigate a VPN if:
- You frequently access sensitive information over public WiFi. WiFi at airports and coffee shops is a lovely convenience, but it isn’t secure. Since the connection is wide open to anyone within range, anyone with the right skills can jump into the pool and intercept your web traffic. If you happen to navigate to your bank account… you could be in trouble. Unless, of course, you are using an isolated, invisible VPN connection.
- You absolutely uncomfortable with even minimal risk to your data. Even if you don’t generally use public connections, you might just have an extremely low tolerance for risk. If this is the case, and if an extra layer of protection would help give you some peace of mind, then the (already low) investment in a VPN is probably well worth it for you.
If you don’t fall into either of these two categories, you probably don’t need to worry about it.
For most of us, we are either connecting to the internet from an office that is protected with a firewall, or from our home that has password-protected WiFi. These safeguards are generally more than enough to keep our personal information out of untrustworthy hands.
Keep in mind…
Just as a company’s employees are its most glaring security vulnerability, you are the weakest link when it comes to the security of your data.
While a VPN can help mask your web activity and prevent malicious parties from snatching up data, it won’t be of any help if you click an infected link or download a bogus attachment that is actually ransomware. Information might not get out, but bad stuff can still get in.
So continue to use strong passwords, to be suspicious of shady-looking web links, and to scrutinize any emails that just don’t smell right to you.
Stay safe out there!
As originally published in the American City Business Journals.