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Virtual Private Networks

Tech Talk

I'm sure you've heard about or seen ads for Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). But what are they, how do they work, and why would you need one?

If you don't subscribe to a VPN service, when you use the internet, your computer connects to your service provider (AT&T, Race, Spectrum, or somebody else) and then to the site you want to visit. With a VPN, your computer connects to your service provider as usual but then gets re-routed to the VPN company's equipment, which could be anywhere.

When you use a VPN, you can appear to be from anywhere in the world to the websites you visit, at least if the VPN service has a server in that country. So why would that be a good thing?

Let's say you want to follow the soccer games of the Czech Republic team, but no USA broadcast channels or streaming services carry the games. However, using a VPN, you could "look" like you're coming from a country where the games are available.

If you're worried about someone tracking your physical location or your internet activities, using a VPN gives your internet traffic a completely different external Internet Protocol (IP) address than the IP address your service provider provides you.

A VPN also provides an encrypted connection for all your internet traffic. Using a VPN while connected to a public, unsecured (no password) public Wi-Fi connection, say at the airport or a hotel, is a good idea. But when you're at home, almost every website you connect to will show you a lock symbol in the address bar, or the site itself will start with https://, which means you've got an encrypted connection anyway, even without a VPN.

VPNs are also helpful in accessing the broader internet if you live in a country with a government restricting internet access for political reasons.

And a VPN is almost required if you're accessing a private corporate network from outside the office, like, working from home. But don't worry about picking a VPN service provider. Your corporate IT folks will almost certainly tell you which one to use here. Heck, they'll probably install it for you.

So, what CAN'T a VPN do? Contrary to most of the VPN ads out there, a VPN can't stop hackers, or protect your information stored on the web somewhere, or keep you safe from law enforcement warrants (what are you doing that you need to be worried about that and why would the company put in their advertisements?) A VPN can't keep you safe from, or get rid of, confidence scams, fake tech support scams, fake invoice emails, fake IRS notices, fake delivery notices from UPS or FedEx, fake error receipts from Amazon, or any of the myriad other ways criminals are trying to separate you from your money.

And while a VPN prevents basic tracking of your internet activities, many other sophisticated tracking techniques don't use your IP address to track you, so a VPN can't help you much there, either.

If you need secure access to your network at home, you need a home router that supports VPN connections, not a VPN service in another country.

Not everyone has mastered the art of texting. Case in point:

Mom: Stop at the dollar store on your way home and get lunch maggots.

Me: Lunch maggots?

Mom: Baffles.

Mom: Baggies.

Mom: Ziploc lunch Baggies.

Mom: Spellcheck is not helping me.

Mom: By the way, this is Dad.

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