This ability to shrink the world is part of its fascination; before the web it was hard to view video signals from across the Pennines, let alone the Atlantic.
But connecting invisibly and automatically is not always ideal. Sometimes it’s better to keep your connection private – especially when using a public terminal – or to go through the back door, by fooling the network into thinking you’re in a different country. If you subscribe to Netflix, for instance, you can connect to the American version of the service, which has more TV shows and movies than the British catalogue. And ex-patriot Brits can reconnect to the iPlayer and other services whose content is geographically restricted.
A virtual private network, or VPN, is the way to take control of your connections. When you connect to a service from within one, you’re doing so from a private network that’s closed to anyone without permission to access it. Many businesses use them to ensure that their internal communications are for employees’ eyes only, but you don’t need an IT department to set one up for you.
Instead, you subscribe to an encrypted service that handles all your connections for you, rather than letting them take their normal course through your broadband provider. It means that your activity remains hidden from the usual channels and from any data hackers who may be lurking.
Until recently, all this has been very much the province of geeks and those with something to hide. But with the growth in working from home, the need for enhanced security is becoming a mainstream endeavour, and there is now a raft of commercial companies offering encrypted VPN services to private users.
Do you need one? If you use a company laptop in your home, you may be connecting to a VPN every time you open the lid, without realising it. But if you work for yourself and you’re handling commercially sensitive material, you’ll have to make your own arrangements.
The simplest way to do this is by signing up for one of the many VPN services that advertise their wares online. They typically charge from £10 a month and guarantee not to keep logs of who connects to what – though because they’re basically just vast warehouses of computers, it’s impossible to check if they’re as meticulous as they say.
Some of these firms are as anonymous as the data they generate on your behalf, but the arrival into the market of household names like Norton and Kaspersky signals a new era for the VPN. At £20 a month for even the most basic service, Norton’s 360 offering isn’t cheap but it does guarantee log-free and anonymous browsing, bank-grade encryption and stops your activity being tracked by advertisers. For an extra £15 a month it adds virus protection and a few other bells and whistles. While this might be an indulgence for some, it’s also a legitimate business expense, and, if you’re handling other people’s data, an essential precaution.
VPNs work from any computer or phone and with any broadband provider. But they’re not a catch-all solution and they don’t take the place of other security software you may be using. What’s more, because your connections are rerouted through private “tunnels” to your VPN’s servers, your browsing speed may slow down.
Nevertheless, in the tangled web of deceit that the internet has become, they’re a useful first line of defence.
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