VPN’s – What Are They? Do I Need One?

vpnVPN’s and proxies used to be the preserve of geeks.  But now, in the Snowden and Wikileaks era, many people are becoming ever increasingly interested to find out what VPN’s are, how much they cost and why you might want one.  Hopefully, this article will demystify something that isn’t fully understood by the general public but that more and more people seem to be signing up for.

What are VPN’s?

VPN’s, or Virtual Private Networks, in simple terms, are something that allow you to connect your computer to another computer – usually via your Internet connection.  VPN’s have been around for a long time and have been heavily used in business for many, many years.  Now they’re also becoming more popular (and affordable) for home users.

A virtual private network (VPN) is a network that is constructed using public wires — usually the Internet — to connect to a private network, such as a company’s internal network. There are a number of systems that enable you to create networks using the Internet as the medium for transporting data. It secures the private network as these systems use encryption and other security mechanisms to ensure that only authorized users can access the network and that the data cannot be intercepted.

Webopedia – August 2016

So in theory, once you connect to a VPN, your get a secure connection to another computer system.  This can be for the purpose of using software or accessing data on the target computer that you are connected to or it can be used as a conduit to connect to the Internet – almost like a third party provider.  Rather than you connecting directly to the Internet, you connect to a secure VPN and the target computer that your connected to then connects to the World Wide Web.  Traffic sent by your computer – for example, requests for web pages, are then sent via the VPN to the computer your connected to securely which then in turn relays that request to the Internet.  On the way back, the website that you’ve requested responds to the computer that sent the request with the required data – this is not your computer, but the computer that you are securely connected to.  This computer then passes this response back to your PC via the secure VPN connection.

Essentially, as an end user, you don’t really notice any difference (apart from possibly a slight slow down in your usual Internet speed as there is now an extra ‘jump’ it has to make for all requests and responses via your VPN).

Do I Need One?

The simple answer is no.  You are able (country dependent) to gain access to the Internet by connecting your computer directly to the World Wide Web.

But… and this is a big but… maybe you’re asking the wrong question?  Are you asking ‘do I need one?’ or are you (or should you) be asking ‘do I want one?’.

VPN’s have become big business (and vital) overseas – not just for corporations but for journalists and increasingly the general public.  In suppressive regimes, that don’t necessarily respect freedom of speech, freedom of expression or freedom of the press, journalists and increasingly bloggers use VPN’s to circumvent firewalls (such as the Great Firewall of China) or to anonymise their traffic – i.e. in cases where freedom of speech and expression are not necessarily prohibited but, for example, there could be great punishments for writing articles that are critical of a regime or influential figures.

Increasingly VPN’s are coming into common use in Western democracies – but for much different reasons.  In the post 9/11 world, compounded by increased whistleblowing in recent years around government wrong-doing and corporate corruption, Western governments have been falling over themselves for a solution.  Unfortunately, when Government gets involved with technology, they don’t usually ask too many experts – usually they consult among themselves and their so-called political advisors.  This tends to lead to some crappy, ill thought and in some cases impossible to enforce laws (remember, Donald Trump wants to shut down the Internet – doh!).

Frequently, in recent times, legislation and proposed legislation is so poorly thought out that it just means that the right to privacy and to have a private life is brushed to one side in the name of counter terrorism – ignoring the fact that the vast majority of Internet users (and indeed, the vast majority of the human population) are not terrorists or a threat to national security.

The US wanted to outlaw encryption – all over access to one iPhone.  And the UK, under new Prime Minister Theresa May (also know as, Maggie II), seems determined to push ahead with the Draft Communications Data Bill that has been bouncing around for a while – nicknamed the Snooper’s Charter in the UK.

These laws are all slightly different to each other, but all have a common theme.  That (fairly) unrestricted access to everyone’s electronic data, including Internet data, messages, phone calls etc should be fair game for the government in the name of national security.  Privacy campaigners are rightly up in arms, accusing the Government of breaching the human and civil rights of their citizens for a highly disputable and small gain.

Now, of course, no one’s saying that there shouldn’t be due process in place to allow the government to access records (as they do with phone records) but what people are saying is that this, as with previous legislation regarding phone tapping and access to financial records, needs to involve the judicial system, have clearly defined processes and safeguards and also needs independent oversight.

But I’m Doing Nothing Wrong, Why Do I Care?

I hear this one a lot – or a variation of it – such as ‘If you’re doing nothing wrong, why are you bothered?’.  This almost passive acceptance of ‘big brother’ government is a concern for all citizens of civilized nations.  Whatever good intentions are behind some of this legislation, the far-reaching consequences of this legislation in the hands of an unscrupulous government are shocking and mind blowing.

For example, under the proposed UK Snooper’s Charter, there’d currently be nothing stopping an incumbent government using the legislation to access electronic records of political opponents and opposition parties in an attempt to smear them or gain information to assist the government remain in power – essentially state sponsored hacking for the benefit of the incumbent political party.

‘They’d never do it’ they say.  Remeber the Patriot Act in the US?  That was brought in straight after 9/11 with the noble aim of thwarting terrorist attacks against the homeland.  Noble intentions quickly got replaced with ‘this would be quite a convienient tool to use in X, Y and Z case to get around some red tape‘ (read: civil rights).

Is easy to think about this dilemma as being something new but actually, it’s not.  It’s just the first time we’ve come up against it in terms of modern computer and the Internet due to the rise of hacking and cyber terrorism.

But for example, the laws surrounding human rights cover many things, such as the right to a private life.  Let me give you another different situation, but apply the same rules as we’re being asked to apply to the Internet.

Most of us live in our own homes, whether that be that we own them, rent them, live with family or live with friends.  We accept that we’ve got a right to privacy in our own homes (although of course, this can be breached, if for example, there is strong suspicion, backed up by some evidence, that you are abusing that right to privacy by using it to mask criminal activity (like storing stolen goods for example).

For the people who are saying ‘If you’ve got nothing to hide, what do you care?’ in particular, how would you feel if the state mandated a law that said that the Government will place a CCTV camera in every bedroom of every home of the country?  After all, if you’re doing nothing wrong, why do you care?

I dare say that the vast majority of people would not be willing to accept this.  Yes, as part of the majority of the population that isn’t committing criminal acts, you aren’t doing anything ‘wrong’ in there – but you feel as a law abiding citizen and human being that you have a right to privacy.  This is only applying the same logic to technology and the Internet.  Yes the government most likely doesn’t care about your holiday plans or e-mails between yourself and your Mum and yes it doesn’t have the man power to read all these things about everyone.  But, under the proposed laws, if they wanted to, they could.

Maybe you’re blogging about controversial topics?  Whistle-blowing on corruption?  Maybe someone with a bit of influence or power or money (or a combination of all 3) simply doesn’t like you.  There wouldn’t have to be a reason that you think is reasonable – it could just happen.

To Wrap Up…

In conclusion, pause and think about what you could be agreeing to.  Are you comfortable with the Government having unfettered access to an ever increasing part of your life that is being conducted online?  Or do you think that as a law abiding citizen you deserve some privacy?

Be very wary before rubber stamping government plans that could see the beginning of the end of a private life for yourself and your family.

Remember the camera in your bedroom – this is just the online equivalent.

You may also like...

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x