Virtual private networks protect online communication

Annalisa Baranowski | The DePaulia

You’re sitting in Starbucks, stalking people you haven’t seen in years on Facebook when you realize you forgot to pay your credit card bill. You quickly jump onto your banking app to make sure you have enough in your account, and then over to your credit card provider’s site to pay the bill. In the last couple of minutes, you’ve doled out a handful of important usernames and passwords, all while using Starbuck’s public network, which isn’t necessarily secure. Should you be worried?

Maybe. And some experts would recommend using a virtual private network to protect yourself.

Virtual private networks, or VPNs, give you privacy online. They ensure that your location stays private, that your communication  is encrypted, and that you are an anonymous user on the internet. When you use a VPN, your IP address (the way your computer is identified online) and other information you might be transmitting (like passwords) are hidden by the VPN, making it difficult for hackers to get ahold of information you might be sending to a server. VPNs give you anonymity that can be useful for avoiding website location blockers, keeping your browsing history secret, and preventing providers from throttling your internet bandwidth.

While most people enjoy social media and other forms of online communication with ease, there are certain things that we should be concerned about when it comes to hacking and privacy.

“You have no control over the path that your communication takes from you to the end point,” said Jacob Furst, director of the school of computing at DePaul. “Your communication goes over networks that anyone can listen in on, including untrusted networks that are monitored by bad guys.”

“As soon as you start doing things like online banking or online shopping with your credit card, you want to be careful,”  Furst added.

With a VPN in place on your device, you could safely access your bank account and credit card payment portal from your table at Starbucks. But it’s important to note that while VPNs might give you privacy online, they don’t necessarily protect you from hackers or malicious viruses.

“A VPN masks your IP address, but it doesn’t tell you that you shouldn’t be accessing that particular website or document,” said tech operations expert Steve Caswell. “If a virus or spyware is installed on your computer, which is usually unknown to the user, a VPN isn’t going to do much good at all.”

Caswell explains that in some cases of hacking, a VPN can even be used against you.

“Any hacker with half a brain can determine what sequence of letters and numbers constitute a username and password,”  Caswell said. “From there, a hacker could even use a VPN to mask their own origin and imitate an IP address from your city, preventing the built-in security measures of your banking website from determining if there is a potential breach.”

Which leads us to the million-dollar question — are VPNs even worth it? And how worried should we be about being hacked online?

“You shouldn’t lose sleep over it, but everyone should always be concerned about that sort of thing and take measures to limit risk,” said internetwork security expert John Kristoff, adding that whether or not an individual needs a VPN often depends on their online habits and what they use the internet for.

Similarly, Furst says that most of his students use VPNs just to keep their browsing history secret, which means companies can’t collect information on their internet habits and retarget them with ads.

“Leave the paranoia to the professionals,” Furst said. “Know that you aren’t perfectly protected, but you are probably pretty safe,” adding that it’s still important to be smart about using unsecured sites and networks.

While Caswell doesn’t use a VPN himself, he does believe the benefits of a VPN go beyond just security.

“There are heaps of benefits of using a VPN,”  Caswell said. “You can ensure internet service providers don’t throttle internet bandwidth and speed, avoid geo-blocking, and be able to access a much larger and expansive media library, like the U.S. version of Netflix if you’re somewhere else in the world.”

Caswell points out that while most companies that create VPNs profit off making us feel insecure about using the internet, there’s no doubt that they do bolster our security online.

“Hacking is prevalent in 2018, and will continue to get more complicated as we tend to share more information online than ever before,” Caswell said. “Criminals taking advantage of loopholes in cyber security is a big business, so the use of a VPN in this day and age is something everyone should at least consider.”