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Virtual private networks (VPN)

Tech Talk

What is a virtual private network (VPN), and why would you want one?

If we break it down starting from the back, a network is a bunch of computers and devices with similar addresses that can "see" and interact with each other.

Private means you need to be a member or have a key to get in. Having a private network means you need to be connected to the network and have a username and a password to join in on all the fun.

Virtual means, in this case, we're describing physical objects that you can't touch or see.

So, a VPN is a bunch of servers networked together that you connect to using a VPN application or service.

But why would you connect to a VPN?

Security: Whenever you connect to an open network, usually Wi-Fi, that doesn't require a password; everything you do is available to everyone else on the same Wi-Fi connection to see. Anyone can intercept your emails, any passwords you enter while you're online or credit card info you enter. By firing up a VPN connection before connecting to an open Wi-Fi connection, everything you do is over an encrypted connection, as it is when you use a secure Wi-Fi connection that requires a password.

Location: If you want to watch a show that's not available in your country, you can use a VPN connection to a server in another country, and you can watch that show. Or, if you're traveling far from home and want to watch Netflix or connect to your bank, you can use a VPN to connect to a server back home, and things should work.

Privacy: When you're connected to a VPN, your computer and the computers you connect to think you're somewhere else, so no one can match your virtual IP address with your physical location.

There are some downsides to VPNs, too.

VPNs work by creating connections called tunnels to go through regular internet traffic. So, VPNs add another layer of networking magic to your transactions and can slow down whatever it is you're trying to do. Sometimes by a lot.

Also, if you're connected to a server in England to watch a soccer game and then connect to Amazon, all the prices will be in pounds, and shipping might take a lot longer.

There are many VPN providers out there. Here are a few things to consider when shopping for one:

Free or cheap VPN providers make compromises on server locations, connection speeds, and even your privacy. It's better to spend more and get more, especially if you travel a lot and need a secure connection. Look for a VPN service that costs between $15 and $20 a month.

Make sure your provider has servers where you need them. For example, if you live in the Golden Hills area of Tehachapi and do business in Ireland and Korea, you'll want a VPN provider with servers on both US coasts and in Ireland and Korea.

One more thing, some people have figured out that pretending to be somewhere you're not might let you get away with things you shouldn't. For example, criminal organizations can use VPNs to hide what they're doing. Law enforcement and governments know this and have seized VPN providers or even started up their own VPN services to catch these bad guys.

Bitcoin anyone?

A banker's daughter shows him her work on improving Bitcoin's lightning-fast network to speed up transactions. In response, he asks her if she would like to hear his opinion on Bitcoin. Rolling her eyes, she says yes.

"It's worthless," he says

"I know," she replies. "But let's hear it anyway."

Do you have a computer or technology question? Greg Cunningham has been providing Tehachapi with on-site PC and network services since 2007. Email Greg at [email protected].