Virtual Privacy

Privacy is dead. Security is not.

Last weekend I got on the Virtual Private Network (VPN) bandwagon and thought I’d share some tips on how to get this set up. While running VPN on a computer is relatively easy, there are a few things you’ll start to run into once you get beyond that step, so I offer my lessons learned below.

Getting Started

VPN is simply a way to protect your personal data and privacy. In this day and age of mobile devices, public wi-fi hotspots and sophisticated information poachers from well-organized groups (like the Chinese government), VPN is probably the next big thing everyone will be doing. In a sense, it’s almost as required these days as having anti-virus software on your computer.

For a detailed introduction to VPN, how it works and where to get an account, see this Lifehacker article on the topic. But basically, a VPN service encrypts all your outgoing Internet data, routes it through their servers where it is un-encrypted and sent on to the website you are trying to reach. The information sent back to your computer also routes through their server, is re-encrypted and sent back to you where your machine un-encrypts it for your browser or other web client to render. The beauty is that all this information cannot be tied to you, all data is encrypted while it travels through any public networks and, as is the case with most good VPN services, they destroy their logs, so no trace of your data will be left on their servers.

The easy part is choosing a VPN Service. In my case, I chose Private Internet Access (PIA) because it was cheap, offered multiple US and international services and had high marks from reviewers.

Once paid for, PIA has software you download and install on your machine. In their case, this software lives in the menu bar beside your wifi icon, etc. From this menu item, you can connect to any one of their servers around the world.

To test that this is working, you can go to any one of the IP mapping services a quick google search will bring up. PIA offers a What’s My IP service for their customers. So, if you’ve connected to the London server, this map will show you the IP address and surrounding neighborhood in London where the server you are connecting to resides.

Dealing with the Alarm Bells VPN Triggers

So now that your VPN is working, you’ll probably start receiving distressing emails from Google that there is suspicious activity going on with your account. This is because suddenly your account was accessed from a foreign country (if you’re using, say, the German server run by your VPN service. This is also a sign of success.

However, now you have to configure your google accounts so that you don’t get access dropped as they scramble to protect you from what they think are hackers. To fix this, you need to set up 2-step Authentication. This is a layer of security that is a good idea in it’s own right, even if you’re not using VPN. The way it works is that when you access your Google accounts from a new device, Google will ask you to sign in. If you do this correctly, they will then text you a special access code to your mobile phone. You then enter this code into a 2nd authentication box and only then can you get into your Gmail or Drive accounts.

What’s nice is that once you do this on a new device, you can let Google know that it can always trust that device and so you won’t need to use your phone every time you want to read your email.

In some cases, such as with synching the Chrome Browser or accessing YouTube on Apple TV, you need to create an application-specific password, which you can do quite easily. For using YouTube on your Apple TV, for example, you’ll need to enter the application-specific password (and not your personal password) in order to connect to your YouTube account.

Making VPN on your Devices a Breeze

Once this is done, you will then want to download VPN software to your other computers and devices. With the mobile devices I use (an iPad and Android phone), this is simply a VPN setting under your device’s network settings.

However, making this more seamless requires a few more steps. Most device OS’s are not considering VPN to be as commonly used as it probably will be in the near future. For that reason, VPN controls are usually buried inside the interface, making it a pain to switch back and forth. And let’s be honest, when you stop for your Sunday afternoon coffee, you might be tempted to just risk checking Facebook without VPN. So, making this easier is just a good security precaution.

With the iPad or iPhone, you’ll probably want to jailbreak it (for the legal considerations of this, read this post on the Librarian of Congress’ recent decision on jailbreaking) so you can add some interface features that allow you quicker access to turning VPN on/off. The Cydia app store (for jailbroken iOS devices) offers an invaluable iOS hack called NCSettings that will allow you to add quick on/off toggles to your Notifications Bar. A VPN toggle is one of these options.

For Android, there are a number of apps in the Play Store that allow you to create quick, one-click toggling of VPN.

Once this is all set up, you’re pretty good to go…

Hope that helps!

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