Here is my Concord Monitor column this week – think I can take credit for a huge increase in VPN usage?
Considering that my livelihood depends in part on draping myself with the mantle of geekiness, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that I don’t really like new technology.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I like new technology, as long as I don’t have to use it.
I’ve had to figure out many new technologies in my life, only to see them get outdated and tossed aside in the blink of an iPod. Facing yet another new technology makes me tired. There has to be a big payback to make it worth the effort.
Recently, in light of news about lack of protection of our online browsing habits, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that the payback is worth the effort on setting up a home VPN, or virtual private network.
A VPN is a system that sends your internet traffic through a non-obvious route. They are common in the business and educational world as a way for staff or students outside the building to hook in to a corporate or university network, passing through the firewall that keeps out the riffraff.
My interest comes from another aspect of VPNs: They make it impossible, or at least very hard – for somebody else to see what you’re doing online. The usual metaphor is a highway tunnel. Instead of your internet service provider connecting you to your destination via surface streets, where your phone or cable company or other internet provider can easily watch, a VPN disguises your trip.
“When you’re on your computer, it’ll say that you’re in Canada, you’re in Germany. It can switch every 5 minutes, every 10 minutes,” said Steven Cote, owner of PC Wizard on Loudon Road.
I called Cote to learn more about the topic. Not surprisingly, he didn’t share my fear of technical novelty.
“You can go on, in about two seconds, if you do it through a company,” Cote said.
Cote said he’s heard a lot of people asking about VPN and the similar Tor service (more on that in a moment) since the well-publicized decision by the U.S. Senate to kill rules that would prevent ISPs from collecting and selling customers’ data, including search-engine queries. Those consumer-protection rules hadn’t even gone into effect yet, so in a way nothing was changed by the vote, but the news made a lot of us face up to the vulnerability of our web-surfing habits.
Cote said I’m demographically stereotypical in my concern about companies selling my internet traffic to advertisers or see embarrassing things I do online, like constantly double-checking the difference between “its” and “it’s.”
“Everybody that comes in talks about it,” Cote said. “But it’s more the older people (who are concerned). The younger people are going with the flow. They don’t understand their worth. … People 50 and up, that’s their biggest complaint.”
There’s a ton of information online about home VPN service, much of it created in the last couple of weeks since the Senate vote. (Also created has been action in several legislatures, although not New Hampshire, to launch state-level versions of the privacy rules the Senate killed.)
Just a moment’s web search will uncover a slew of companies that sell VPN services, with names from the corporate (“Private Internet Access”) to the almost-naughty (“Hide My Ass”). They generally cost from $5 to $10 a month, although you can spend a lot more for extra services.
These are software-based. They encrypt your outgoing signal so your ISP can’t read it, then bounce it around servers throughout the world to hide your footprints. Review sites, such as PC Magazine, compare their strengths and weaknesses.
The big drawback to a VPN is that adding more layers to the trip means they can lower the speed of your internet traffic.
Some privacy advocates who say you shouldn’t use a commercial VPN, because while they hide your traffic from your internet provider, the VPN company itself has access to your traffic and can sell it or cough it up to law enforcement. Most VPN services say they don’t keep such records but there are reasons to be suspicious.
These privacy ultra-advocates say you should build your own VPN. If you’re so inclined you can find plenty of articles online with headlines like “How I made my own VPN server in 15 minutes.”
Me? I think not.
Another alternative is Tor, an open-source system that does roughly the same thing as a VPN, using a free browser and volunteer-run servers. You may have heard of it when the public library in Lebanon got into a kerfuffle last year over hosting a Tor server.
Tor can have some performance issues compared to a commercial VPN but on the other hand there’s no single Tor company handling your web traffic, so it removes that privacy concern.
I installed Tor, which acts just like a slow web browser, but have been told that a VPN is even better – partly because it also protects traffic from other devices going through my home Wi-Fi and partly because you can use it when connecting to public Wi-Fi.
So I’ll be installing a VPN at home this week, hopefully without having to learn how to do anything new. Although at the very least, I am going to have to dream of another password … groan!
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)