SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month

IT’S GEEK TO ME: Does your network need a VPN?

Jeff Werner
It's Geek to Me
Northwest Florida Daily News

Q:There is a company that advertises on TV that is selling protection for your computer, which in turn will protect your identity, personal information and devices. The commercial talks about one important part, the "Secure VPN." What is that? Do I need one? How can I tell if I do or do not already have one? Thank you.

Spouse Peripheral, Niceville

A: For the benefit of my readers who might not be aware, the asker of this question, “Spouse Peripheral,” is none other than my very own lovely bride, Wendy. Unlike the rest of you, in most cases she enjoys the privilege of merely needing to call “Help! I need a Geek!” when she has a question or a problem. In this case, I thought the answer was worth sharing with all of you as a learning experience.

By way of background for those among you who are truly neophytes in the world of networked devices, in order for your computer to be “on the internet” you must have an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The ISP manages your connection for you, and supplies you with an IP address that uniquely identifies your connection to the rest of the internet. All of the data that go to and from sites on the internet travel through the ISP’s servers, which means the ISP – and anyone else tapped-in along the route – can see and log everything you do online. They can gather your online habits and browsing history, and perhaps sell the data to advertisers, turn it over to government agencies, or worse.

VPN is an acronym that stands for Virtual Private Network. A VPN causes your computer’s network traffic to be encrypted, and relayed through a specially configured remote server maintained by the VPN provider. This essentially anonymizes your online activity by hiding your IP address (which makes it difficult-to-impossible for a remote site to determine your location), and encrypting the data stream being sent and received. The latter means that anyone intercepting your data will see only undecipherable gibberish. These are the reasons why the company claims to protect your identity and personal information.

The use, or non-use, of a VPN happens separately for each device; and VPNs are available not just for computers, but also for devices like smart phones and tablets.If your device has a VPN installed, the chances are that either you or the person who maintains your tech intentionally put it there, so you should already know about it. In the case of a Windows PC, you can determine if your system has one by clicking Start, then Settings (the gear icon). Open “Network & Internet” and you’ll see “VPN” right there in the left-hand navigation bar. Click it to open the VPN configuration. If your system uses a VPN, it will be listed here. You’ll be able to tell information such as the VPN provider, the name of the connection, and the provider’s server. There are similar settings under the Configuration applet on a typical smart phone.

The question of whether you “need” a VPN is one of those annoying questions that always get answered “it depends.” If by “need” you mean can you use my computer to access the internet and its rich variety of content, then no, of course you don’t need one, because you’re probably already doing those things. By that definition, you also don’t “need” a malware scanner or anti-virus software, but most people wouldn’t dream of going online without the protection they provide. A VPN is just that – another level of protection you can put in place to help keep yourself a little safer from online bad guys. VPNs are generally not free, so it’s up to you whether the extra protection is worth tacking on the extra cost.

With regard to the commercials on TV, the likelihood is that a VPN is only one part of a larger package of internet security tools that the company is selling. As with anything you buy, some of these suites are better than others. Be sure and do your homework before investing in one. Read online reviews, find out what the experts are saying, and see if users of the product feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.

To view additional content, comment on articles, or submit a question of your own, visit my website at ItsGeekToMe.co (not .com!)