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The Purpose of a VPN

The Computer Corner

By Charles Miller

It is not with great expectations that I write this column this week believing that what I explain here will miraculously lead to everyone understanding two very complex technologies, but I am still going to take my best shot. There are two almost universally misunderstood internet connectivity technologies that come up with me over and over again. These are related to security and privacy.

The first misunderstood issue is security as it relates to Wi-Fi. For some reason many people mistakenly believe that simply adding a password to their home wireless network increases their security. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The term “wireless security” is most assuredly an oxymoron. Both Apple and Microsoft have password sharing schemes intended to make their products more user-friendly, and this benefit is accomplished at the cost of security. Some readers have probably already experienced visiting a friend’s house and discovering that their smart phone or laptop computer is already connected to their friend’s Wi-Fi as if by magic. The magic is that some Wi-Fi systems promiscuously hand out the owner’s password to anyone that might need it. Anyone who can read a dictionary should know that is not the definition of secure.

In public-access locations, like a coffee shop or airport, the Wi-Fi there may require a password but more often than not that password is used only to verify you just paid for a cup of coffee. The existence of a password simply does not provide the security people think it does.

The second misunderstood issue is privacy as it relates to a Virtual Private Network (VPN). For some reason most people mistakenly believe that using a VPN guarantees their privacy and anonymity. Once again, nothing could be further from the truth.

A lot of people are using VPN clients for privacy. They do this in order to camouflage their location so they can subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or other entertainment providers that are otherwise geo-restricted. If you are in Mexico, it is easy to use a VPN to make your location appear to be elsewhere. To some extent this can be successful when Netflix or other providers are not checking up closely on their customers. The first time Netflix chooses to examine your account it will be able to see instantly that you are using a VPN and that you are not where you say you are.

The purpose of a VPN is to provide security, not privacy. If you are using an insecure public Wi-Fi location like a coffee shop or airport, that would be a very unwise place to do online banking unless your smart phone or laptop has a VPN client installed. Using a VPN to secure your connection means you can then use the most insecure public Wi-Fi safely, confident in knowing your online banking is safe from any computer hacker intercepting your communications. That is what a VPN is really for!

 

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.

 

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