I get asked about VPNs a lot — virtual private networks. In theory, VPNs make your Internet surfing safer by making sure that no one between you and your intended connecting can read your traffic. The real story is quite a bit more complicated than that, however. That’s the subject of this week’s So Bob podcast. Click play below or listen on Stitcher or on iTunes.
VPNs got a lot of attention in 2017 after the FCC rolled back rules that prevented Internet Service Providers from using customer data to target marketing. Consumers netizens were suddenly interested in using VPNs to keep ISPs from snooping on their Internet traffic. Not a bad idea, but hardly foolproof. For starters, since a VPN routes your traffic through their servers, you are deciding to trust the VPN more than your ISP. That might be a rational choice. On the other hand, there are hundreds of firms offering VPNs online, and it’s very hard to keep up with their ongoing integrity and financial stability.
There are plenty of other drawbacks to VPNs, too. Since they can be used to evade content filters at streaming services like Netflix or professional sports, many of those services won’t play nice with VPNs. Also, VPNs add extra hops to your surfing, so they slow you down.
Good news, however, is that more entrants into the VPN market might eventually make them more reliable. The Firefox browser is experimenting with offering a VPN, for example.
If you are a person who uses co-working spaces a lot — meaning you are doing important work over WiFi in public places often — a VPN might be worth considering. But right now, most people who really need VPNs to keep work files safe are getting their tools from work. VPNs probably aren’t worth it for most other people.
If you want to learn more, the EFF is the best place.