By George Otte
How to prevent information from falling into the wrong hands online.
When every week brings fresh news of big-time data breaches and targeted cyberattacks, it’s tempting to assume that there’s nothing you can do to keep your most intimate details safe from people who want to do you harm.
Fortunately, the truth is a bit rosier. While there’s no way to guarantee safety and security on the digital web, it’s absolutely possible to reduce your risk.
One of the most effective forms of protection—one that’s surprisingly, not very well known—is a virtual private network, or VPN. While it’s not a cure-all (nothing is), a VPN can significantly improve your security as you browse the internet, especially if you’re downloading files, streaming video, accessing websites banned by your employer or local government, or simply trying to have a private conversation without strangers listening in.
More About VPNs
Lifehacker defines a virtual private network as “a group of computers (or discrete networks) networked together over a public network—namely, the internet.” Larger enterprises and government agencies often use their own VPNs, but retail users can access “public” VPNs—VPNs open to anyone with proper credentials—for a recurring fee or an agreement to accept certain types of advertising.
On a technical level, VPNs are quite complex, but their outcomes are easy to understand. First and foremost, VPNs encrypt your traffic such that it’s virtually impossible for outside observers to see what you’re doing online. Also, most VPNs use multiple servers in a variety of locations, often in different countries, and change your IP address in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to ascertain your true location. You can often choose which server to use—and, therefore, where you appear to be.
In other words, VPNs are great for keeping your geographical location and general online activities secret, or at least less public than usual.
Why You Should Probably Use a VPN
What if you have nothing to hide and don’t regularly access sensitive or personal data online? Is it still important to maintain security and secrecy in the digital realm?
Yes, for a number of reasons. Here’s a look at some of the most common reasons to use a VPN:
- You Travel Internationally: If you travel abroad often for business, a VPN can keep you in touch with goings-on back home via social media sites that may be blocked by government firewalls where you are. It can also keep you up to date on American (or other countries’) shows and movies, which aren’t available in many countries due to licensing arrangements. Simply use a U.S.-based VPN server and you’ll be able to watch just like you would at home.
- You Don’t Want Others To See That You’ve Been Reading Up on Them: With some effort, website administrators can identify individual visitors and review their on-site activities. A VPN obscures your identity, making it impossible for business competitors, job candidates and others to see that you’ve been checking up on them.
- You Use Public Wi-Fi Often: Public Wi-Fi networks aren’t secure, meaning anyone can see data transmitted over them. Whenever you use public Wi-Fi, you should use a VPN.
- Have a Firewall: Many computers have firewalls that prevent users from accessing certain websites while logged in to their network. A VPN helps you circumvent such restrictions, which are sometimes detrimental to legitimate work duties (for instance, conducting research on a blocked website).
Other Tips To Stay Safe and Secure Online
What else can you do to protect yourself and your family online? Keep these four simple strategies in mind.
- Switch Up Your Passwords: Passwords matter. To reduce the risk that hackers and other malicious folks will guess your password outright, avoid weak or obvious passwords such as “password123” or your last name. Likewise, use a different password for each important account; that way, even if one of your passwords is discovered, it won’t singlehandedly unlock your entire online ecosystem. Finally, change up your passwords frequently—quarterly or better. If one of your passwords is stolen, it won’t necessarily be correct by the time the thief uses it.
- Use an Anti-Malware Program: VPNs are secure, but they’re not foolproof. Add another layer of protection with an anti-malware program that identifies and blocks potential threats, such as viruses, worms, trojans, phishing links and more. Such programs can cost $50 or more per year, but they’re well worth the expense.
- Look for SSL Certificates: Be careful about downloading or entering personal data on websites without up-to-date SSL certificates, which use a powerful protocol to encrypt and secure data transmitted to and from the site. Most browsers clearly distinguish secure sites from non-secure sites with lock icons or the word “secure” in the URL bar. You can also verify that the URL is preceded by “https”—a signifier of SSL protection.
- Be Careful What You Download: A VPN might hide your true location or identity from prying eyes, but it can’t protect you from the nasty malware that may or may not lurk inside the files you download. There’s a whole universe of dodgy programs, from ransomware that literally holds your computer system hostage to trojans that turn your computer into a spam-producing zombie machine. Even if you have a top-notch VPN and an up-to-date anti-malware program, avoid downloading anything whose provenance you can’t confirm 100 percent.
An Ounce of Prevention…
As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Even if you have to pay $100 per year for a VPN and $50 per year for an anti-malware suite, that’s small change compared to the potential cost (in dollar terms, stress and aggravation, and lost time) of a major data breach.
Rather than log in to your online bank account to find zeroes where your balance should be, wouldn’t you rather take proactive steps to protect yourself and your family online before anything bad happens? Get started today—and look forward to your newfound peace of mind.