If you’ve suddenly found yourself working from home in light of recent events, the thought that your home computing network isn’t as secure as it should be has probably struck you. Maybe you’ve changed your home Wi-Fi password to one that’s more complex, and you know you’re supposed to update your devices’ operating systems whenever a new one is available. Another solution that has a minimal cost but pays dividends for online safety is installing and using a paid Virtual Private Network (VPN) service.
Your employer may already have a VPN that you use to access work documents, share folders, or your company intranet. If you’re using your own devices to access company files, maybe there’s an app installed on your computer that you use. You may not fully understand what happens during this connection; on the user end you probably only see a request for login credentials, or maybe you sign in using your fingerprint or Face ID. In theory, a VPN is simple to understand. It’s simply a secured tunnel that uses an existing internet connection to reach from point-to-point. Your home Wi-Fi, that travels through your Internet Service Provider (ISP) out to the world wide web, is not secure.
How Can Hackers Get Your Data?
With basic software that’s cheap or even free, a hacker can easily see the traffic you send through the internet. Many websites are secure and offer protection against someone snooping on your traffic (login credentials, etc.). However, you need only to do a quick Google search to find that these companies aren’t immune to cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Cybercriminals can glean a lot of information from the data you send over an internet connection, and if you’ve had malware installed on your system without your knowledge, a bad actor will almost certainly see your data. If you’re using a public Wi-Fi connection that doesn’t require a password, the threat is even greater. Some hackers can even set up what’s known as a “rogue access point” that masquerades as a legitimate Wi-Fi connection but instead passes your traffic back to the hacker. VPNs provide an answer to this problem.
How Does a VPN Work?
A VPN works by providing a secure tunnel for the data you send and receive over the internet. Most commercially available VPNs have you connect to a secure server hosted by the VPN provider, which then assigns your device a new Internet Protocol (IP) address from its own pool of available IPs. While the technical details can be confusing, this essentially means that your device (and all the data sent to it and received by it) cannot be seen by anyone outside the VPN provider’s servers. This includes the government, your internet provider, and malicious actors on the internet. VPNs can even hide your location around the world; you can physically be located in the United States but you can choose to show your device as being located anywhere else in the world to provide you further privacy.
Besides this, VPNs provide powerful end-to-end encryption of your data. If the concept of encryption is confusing or foreign to you, just think of a box that’s been locked with a key that only you and your friend have. Even if you send the box through the mail and it’s grabbed by a thief, they don’t have the key and can’t open the box (for this example, assume the box is made of some nigh-indestructible material that will take years to crack). On top of the encryption your bank, online store, or other website is using, the encryption that your VPN provides means your data is well protected.
VPNs Make You a “Harder Target”
In the world of cybersecurity, it’s impossible to completely protect yourself. Any hacker, given adequate time and resources, can find a vulnerability to exploit. There are entire countries with well-funded, advanced cybersecurity attack teams intended to break through the most sophisticated defenses. However, as an average citizen, you don’t provide much incentive for a criminal to spend much time on you. The key to your protection is to provide a “harder target” to a criminal. For a simpler example, suppose you live in a neighborhood where there are occasional break-ins. You want to make burglars less likely to target you, so maybe you put a “beware of dog” sign on your fence, install a motion-detecting light on your garage, and make sure you lock your doors at night. A determined thief could still find a way into your house, but they will likely go after your neighbors first who’ve taken fewer steps to secure their property. In the same way, a hacker in a public area will pursue individuals who haven’t secured their devices before they goes after yours, which is secured by a VPN. It’s even likely that they won’t be able to even see your device connected to the internet, if you’re using a reputable VPN.
What VPN Do You Need?
There are plenty of good VPN providers out there, and a quick Google search can show you which are good to choose from. The most important thing, however, is that you are paying for your VPN service. “Free” VPNs are untrustworthy and make their money through selling your data, so they defeat the purpose. A good VPN will cost you around $5 a month or less, allow you to use it on several devices, and will have a good level of encryption (you’re looking for 256-bit AES encryption for the strongest modern encryption). Other sites can allow you to compare VPNs and choose the one that’s right for you.
In this age of uncertainty and telework, protecting yourself online is more important than ever. Malicious actors will be more active in trying to steal data as times become more desperate. Even if your company provides some sort of encrypted connection back to the intranet, working from home brings more risks to your online identity and data since you’re on your home network more. Protect yourself with a low-cost VPN.