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What Is a VPN, and Why You Need One

VPN helps you beat the thief and watch US Netflix

Simply put, a VPN creates a shield around your internet use disguising what you do, sites you visit, where you shop, and protects your financial details. That shield is called a VPN. All your internet traffic is routed through this shield, so your data is secure. Best of all, your computer appears to have the IP address of the VPN server, masking your identity and location. To understand the value of a VPN, it helps to think of some specific scenarios in which a VPN might be used. Freedome VPN was €59.95, now €24.95

Consider the public Wi-Fi network, perhaps at a coffee shop, underground. COVID19 has driven up internet use so much now more important than ever to protect ourselves online. Normally, you might connect without a second thought. But do you know who might be watching the traffic on that network? Can you even be sure the Wi-Fi network is legit, or might it be operated by a thief who's after your data? Think about the passwords, banking data, credit card numbers, and just plain private information that you transmit every time you go online.

We asked you, Here's why you buy a VPN

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This guy needs a VPN.

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If you connect to that same public Wi-Fi network using a VPN you can rest assured that no one on that network will be able to intercept your data—not other users snooping around for would-be victims, nor even the operators of the network itself. This last point is particularly important, and everyone should keep in mind that it's very difficult to tell whether or not a Wi-Fi network is what it appears to be. Just because it's called Starbucks_WiFi doesn't mean it's owned by a well-known coffee purveyor.

Another example showing the value of VPNs is using these services to access blocked websites. Some governments have decided that it is in their best interest to block certain websites from access by all members of the population. With a VPN, those people can have their web traffic securely sent to a different country with more progressive policies, and access sites that would otherwise be blocked. And again, because VPNs encrypt your traffic, it helps protect the identity of people who connect to the open internet in this way.


Protection on iPhone, just press button to turn on VPN

For the most part, VPN clients are the same for both Windows and macOS. But that's not always the case, and I have found marked performance differences depending on the platform. You'll still need to sign up with a VPN service, however.

For mobile devices, most companies offer VPN apps for iPhone and iOS, which is great because we use these devices to connect to Wi-Fi all the time. However, VPNs don't always play nice with connections. That said, it takes some serious effort to intercept mobile phone data, although law enforcement or intelligence agencies may have an easier time gaining access to this data, or metadata, through connections with mobile carriers or by using specialized equipment.

While VPN apps are fairly similar in look and function regardless of mobile platform, iPhone VPNs often use different VPN protocols than their Android counterparts. This is fine for the most part, however.

Do you use a less common OS? That won't necessarily protect you online. People spying on network traffic don't care what kind of computer it's coming from. 

Other Threats

Among the enemies of free speech and privacy, there are two three-letter groups to be especially concerned about: the NSA and your ISP.

Through years of reporting and the Snowden leaks, we now know that the NSA's surveillance apparatus is enormous in scope. At one point, the agency could intercept and analyze just about every transmission being sent over the web. There are jaw-dropping stories about secret rooms inside data infrastructure hubs, from which the agency had direct access to the beating heart of the internet. With a VPN, you can rest assured that your data is encrypted and less directly traceable back to you. Given the mass surveillance efforts having more ways to encrypt your data is a good thing. VPNs are great for shopping too!

DoS and DDoS attacks on Xbox

Play games on Xbox Live? You could experience a denial of service (DoS) or distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. Such attacks will render your device (your Xbox console or your computer) unable to connect to the Internet or Xbox Live.

If you have an Xbox Live account, your Xbox console could experience a DoS or DDoS attack from another possibly jealous Xbox gamer. DoS and DDoS attacks are retaliation between Xbox Live gamers.

If you've experienced a DoS or DDoS attack, reset your Internet router and contact your internet service provider (ISP). If you know who initiated the DoS or DDoS attack, you may also want to submit a player review to Xbox Live and avoid the attacker in the future and report them to Police, as this sort of attack is a crime.

What is a DoS or DDoS attack?

The attacker floods the IP address of the targeted device (such as an Xbox console or a computer) with external, intentionally harmful communication requests, leaving the device unable to connect to the Internet and Xbox Live. The attack directed at your IP address denying your whole house internet access.

In a DDoS attack, the attacker uses malicious code installed on multiple computers to identify and attack the target device. 

Note DoS or DDoS attacks are sometimes used as retaliation following online multiplayer gameplay. Attackers also sometimes threaten the players whose devices they later attack with comments such as "I'm going to IP boot you," "I'm going to flood your IP," or "I'm going to boot you off the Internet."

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That's not to say a VPN makes you invisible to spies or law enforcement. Your traffic could still be intercepted in any number of ways. A VPN does make it harder to correlate online activities to you adding a layer of encryption during parts of your online traffic's journey. But VPNs and widespread adoption of HTTPS make it much harder for mass surveillance to work as it has in the past.

In the US FCC has rolled back Obama-era rules, and the EU is not enforcing its own rules that sought to protect net neutrality. So now even ISPs want to sell and profit from your data. ISPs want a slice of that big money pie that has fueled the growth of companies like Facebook and Google. 

Those companies can gather huge amounts of information about users and then use it to target advertising or even sell that data to other companies. ISPs now have the green light to bundle anonymized user data and put it up for sale.

While it is true that companies like Google and Facebook make money off your behaviour, you are not required to use those services. If you suddenly decided to stop using Facebook, you might miss out on cute pet pics and political rants from your friends and family, but you could still live a decent, perhaps better, life. You could even choose to avoid Google entirely and use privacy-conscious DuckDuckGo for your web searches. While you are at it stop using Google-backed Chrome and start using not for profit Firefox.

You don't have this same level of choice when it comes to your ISP, which controls your home's gateway to the entirety of the internet. While there are alternatives to Google and Facebook, many of us have limited home ISP alternatives. Some areas have only one ISP offering wired internet access. That makes recent changes that allow ISPs to sell data from their customers all the more troubling.

What a VPN Won't Do

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There are multiple ways your behaviour can be tracked online—even with a VPN, things like cookies allow web services (Amazon, Google, Facebook, and so on) to track your internet usage even after you've left their sites.

VPNs also only do so much to anonymize your online activities. Some VPN services will even connect to Tor via VPN, for additional security. 5 great reasons to get a VPN.

It's worth noting that most VPN services are privately owned That means they have to respond to legal subpoenas and warrants. They also have to abide by the law.

This is why it's so important to read the privacy policy for VPN services and to find out where a VPN company is headquartered. NordVPN, for example, is based in Panama, therefore not required to retain user data.

​Things can get tricky when it comes to trusting a VPN. Recently, PureVPN handed over log information the company had to federal investigators building a case against a cyberstalker and general dirtbag. Some were surprised that the company had any information to hand over, or that it did cooperate with investigators at all. 

It's easy to want to find the perfect, magical tool that will protect you from all possible threats. But the truth is that if someone targets you specifically and is willing to put forward the effort, they will get to you. A VPN can be defeated by malware on your device, or by analyzing traffic patterns to correlate activity on your computer to activity on the VPN server. But using security tools like a VPN ensure that you won't be an easy target, or get scooped up in mass surveillance.

The Trouble with Privacy

There are, however, some complications that arise from using a VPN. These aren't deal-breakers, but they warrant consideration.

Chromecast and other streaming protocols send data over your local network, but that's a problem when you're using a VPN. Those devices are looking for streaming data from phones and computers on the same network, not from a distant VPN server. Likewise, smart devices may be gathering lots of data about you and your home that you'd rather not have intercepted. Unfortunately, these devices simply cannot run VPNs. The solution for both problems is to move the security up a level by installing a VPN on your router. This encrypts data as it leaves your safe home network for the wild web. Information sent within your network will be available, and any smart devices connected to your network will enjoy a secured connection. Protect your router too! 

Do you like Netflix? That's too bad because Netflix hates VPNs. The problem is that Netflix in England is different from Netflix in the US, which is also different from Netflix in Australia, and so on. Just because you can see your favourite show in one country doesn't mean you can watch it in another.

To ensure that you can't access streaming content that is not licensed for your region, Netflix blocks most VPNs. Some VPN services, however, work hard to ensure their customers can still stream movies and TV shows. It's something of a cat-and-mouse game, and a VPN that works with Netflix today might not work tomorrow.

Another major concern with VPNs is speed. In general, using a VPN is going to increase your latency (or your "ping"), and decrease the speed at which you upload or download data. It's very difficult to say definitively which VPN will have the least impact on your browsing, but extensive testing can give you some idea of which service is the fastest VPN.

While download speeds are one thing, gamers have particular concerns when it comes to internet connections. While there are some VPNs for gaming, they are few and far between. But a few VPNs offer split-tunnelling, which routes the traffic from some applications outside the VPN. It's less secure, but also has less impact on latency.

Protect Yourself With a VPN

When the internet was first being pieced together, there wasn't much thought given to security or privacy. Once, it was just a bunch of shared computers at research institutions, and computing power so limited that any encryption could have made things extremely difficult. 

Today, most of have multiple devices that connect to the web that are vastly more powerful than the top computers of the early days. But the internet hasn't made a lot of fundamental improvements. Consider that it is only in the past few years that HTTPS has become widespread.

Last Chance, 5-day trial

Unfortunately, it is up to individuals to protect themselves. Antivirus apps and password managers keep you safer, but a VPN is a uniquely powerful tool that you should have in your security toolkit, especially in today's connected world. Remember, use a paid-for VPN service.

Articles of Interest

Articles, links and connections from the BeSecureOnline site you might find interesting.    

What is a VPN - VPN Explained

Ransomware - To pay or not to pay - Ransomware

Cybersecurity Essentials for Business

Five things to use VPN for - VPN 5 things

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