Virtual Private Network (VPN) – Why And How To Use One

abrahams tank

Surfing the internet is like driving on a freeway. You are cruising along, listening to some music, thinking about anything but the traffic around you. Then, suddenly, the car in front slams on its brakes, and you hit your brakes to avoid hitting that car. In a flash, your car is suddenly hit in the rear, by the car behind you. Both cars receive several thousands of dollars in damages, and maybe the driver’s and passengers’ have some personal injuries  One of the things both injured party’s will undoubtedly say is, “it happened so quickly”. When you drive, especially in today’s cars where you are very isolated from the outside environment, it is very easy to get a false sense of safety. Sitting in our living room with a laptop, or at work in our office, we load a browser and go off into the cyber world with that same reassuring and albeit false sense of safety. There is nothing safe about driving on a freeway, nor is there any safety in surfing the net. “It” can all happen so quickly, only is this case, the “it” is no accident.

Suppose for a moment that you are driving down the same freeway in a military tank, wishing you had some music to listen to, and thinking about anything but the traffic around you. Suddenly the car in front of you slams on its brakes. You bring the tank to an immediate halt, but the car behind you was less fortunate, and runs into the rear of the tank. Your tank receives a couple of scratches in its camouflage paint, while the car that struck you has a very compressed front end. An accident occurred, but in this case neither you or your vehicle were damaged.  Think of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) as your own virtual tank providing you a high degree of both security and safety on the internet; however, you cannot shoot anyone or anything with your virtual tank metaphor, sorry.

What Is A Virtual Private Network?

A VPN, as its name suggests, is just a virtual version of a secure, physical network–a web of computers linked together to share files and other resources. But VPNs connect to the outside world over the Internet, and they can serve to secure general Internet traffic in addition to corporate assets. In fact, the lion’s share of modern VPNs are encrypted, so computers, devices, and other networks that connect to them do so via encrypted tunnels. [1]

When you connect to a VPN, you usually launch a VPN client on your computer (or click a link on a special website), log in with your credentials, and your computer exchanges trusted keys with a far away server. Once both computers have verified each other as authentic, all of your internet communication is encrypted and secured from eavesdropping.[2]

 

Who Can Benefit From Using A VPN?

You may find yourself in one or more of the following types of VPN users[3]:

The downloader. Whether they’re downloading legally or illegally, this person doesn’t want on some company’s witch-hunt list just because they have a torrenting app installed on their computer. VPNs are the only way to stay safe when using something like BitTorrent–everything else is just a false sense of security. Better safe than trying to defend yourself in court or paying a massive fine for something you may or may not have even done, right?

The privacy minded and security advocate. Whether they’re a in a strictly monitored environment or a completely free and open one, this person uses VPN services to keep their communications secure and encrypted and away from prying eyes whether they’re at home or abroad. To them, unsecured connections mean someone’s reading what you say.

The globetrotter. This person wants to watch the Olympics live as they happen, without dealing with their crummy local networks. They want to check out their favorite TV shows as they air instead of waiting for translations or re-broadcasts (or watch the versions aired in other countries,) listen to location-restricted streaming internet radio, or want to use a new web service or application that looks great but for some reason is
limited to a specific country or region.

Some combination of the above. Odds are, even if you’re not one of these people more often than not, you’re some mix of them depending on what you’re doing. In all of these cases, a VPN service can be helpful, whether it’s just a matter of protecting yourself when you’re out and about, whether you handle sensitive data for your job and don’t want to get fired, or you’re just covering your own ass from the MPAA.

 

Using A VPN Client

Though some VPNs allow access by logging in through a browser, the VPN I use (VPN Unlimited), allows access from a client installed on a local computer. VPN Unlimited allows for 5 computers to use the VPN from one account, so LarryTalksTech has three desktops (two Macs and a Debian Linux computer) and two tablets now on the VPN. In all instances, I have the VPN set to load as the computer starts (a manual setting is also available). As the VPN loads, a client window appears on your screen (see Figure 1, below). Pertinent information is verification that you are indeed connected to the VPN, and through a specific server.

 

VPN Unlimited Client Window

Figure 1.  VPN Unlimited Client Window

Note the “Select Server” box at the lower left corner of the client window (Figure 1, above). Clicking here will bring up a list of servers in numerous countries around the world. By changing to a server, say in the United Kingdom, you can use geographically restricted websites unavailable from the States. When a new server is selected, two configuration files are downloaded to your computer (this is for two different protocols: IPSEC and PPTP. I will abbreviate a long discussion here and just say that IPSEC is the one to use, as it is encrypted, and the faster of the two). On a Mac, you see can the configuration files from the Network pane in the Preferences window (see graphic: Figure 3. VPN Network Settings following the next paragraph, below).

VPN Unlimited Drop Down Box

Figure 2.  VPN Unlimited Drop Down Box

Now for a quirk in using a VPN. Most VPN configurations will not allow you to use a local network while you are using the VPN (OK, you can access both by using a method called split-tunneling, but it is not recommended by most VPN services for security reasons). As a result, you find yourself disconnecting from the VPN, to use the local network, and then reconnecting to the VPN to go in the internet. A pain. In addition, again in the Mac, you cannot disconnect from the VPN (at least with VPN Unlimited), by only selecting the “Quit” option from the VPN Unlimited drop down box (Located on the Menu Bar. See graphic: Figure 2. VPN Unlimited Drop Down Box, above). To be fully disconnected, you must also disconnect the active configuration file. You can find the file in the Network pane of System Preferences. Yikes…..but with a little configuration, you can make this process relatively painless. Here’s how to do it:

VPN Network Settings

Figure 3.  VPN Network Settings

A. While in System Preferences > Network (see graphic, above), unlock the pane so you can make changes by supplying your Mac admin password, when prompted.
B. Click the Configuration File you need to disconnect.
C. Click the Disconnect button. You are now totally disconnected from the VPN, assuming that you have also checked the Quit VPN Unlimited text in the VPN Unlimited Drop Down Box.
D. To make disconnection easier going forward, click the box “Show VPN status in menu bar“, and relock the Network pane. Now, when you click the newly installed VPN status icon on the menu bar, you will get a drop down box (see Figure 4. VPN OS X Drop Down Box graphic below), where you can disconnect the configuration file with just a mouse click, and avoid going into Preferences, Network, unlocking, supply password, etc. (yes, you still have to click checked the Quit VPN Unlimited text in the VPN Unlimited Drop Down Box)

OS X VPN Control Box

Figure 4. OS X VPN Drop Down Box

You restart the VPN by reloading the client window. The configuration file loads automatically from there.

Once the VPN is up and running, you really don’t know its there. There are some times when browsing speed is affected, but for the most part their no noticeable difference. I have verified this buy running speed tests with the VPN both “on” and “off”. The clients work well on my Debian Linux computer, the iMac, and both iPads; however, it is quirky on my Mac Pro (such as: every 54 minutes, exactly, it prompts me for a password, and when it is supplied, I am disconnected. VPN Unlimited’s Support is working on this now). Beyond that, the VPN works as advertised.

To me, a VPN is not a security “silver bullet”. It is simply another tool for your arsenal of tools and processes to keep your data safe. That being said, a VPN is a tool I would not be without.

 

Sources

1. How (and why) to set up a VPN today | http://www.pcworld.com/article/2030763/how-and-why-to-set-up-a-vpn-today.html
2. Why You Should Start Using a VPN (and How to Choose the Best One for Your Needs) http://lifehacker.com/5940565/why-you-should-start-using-a-vpn-and-how-to-choose-the-best-one-for-your-needs
3. ibid.

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