Jim Fisher

This article was inspired by a recent client who brought their computer in because it would not connect to the internet. After a few minutes of diagnosis, we discovered that his VPN software had lost its mind preventing all internet access. Once we removed the VPN software, he was back in business. We are seeing more and more problems like this from people who really shouldn’t be using a VPN.

What in the heck is a VPN you ask? VPN stands for “virtual private network.” Frequent advertisements seem to insist that you need one but do you really? Let’s take a look.

First, the basics: When you send an email or click a link to access a website or perform virtually any activity on the internet, your activity travels through a spider’s web of turns, twists, highways, and side roads as the data travels back and forth between your computer and the website. That activity can be recorded, tracked, or siphoned anywhere along that route. People who might be interested in those details include the FBI, China, Russia, and the Hollywood studio that owns the rights to the movie you illegally downloaded from a shady source.

VPNs come in two flavors: a hardware VPN built into your router, or a software-based VPN that is installed on your computer. Either of these will conceal your computer’s identity behind an impenetrable wall, and create a private “tunnel” between you and whatever you’re viewing or downloading from the internet.

The benefit is obvious: Your identity remains hidden to those who may want to track your activity. The downside is that a VPN will usually make your internet speed slower because it has to encrypt your data before transmitting and receiving. Some VPN service providers have congestion problems during busy times of the day.  Another downside is that a VPN breaks your internet if something goes wrong with it, as happened to our client.

So, do you need a VPN? My general rule of thumb is that if you don’t know if you need a VPN, then you don’t need a VPN. I have no need for one at my home or office. People who do need a VPN already know they need one. Those people include government employees working from home, some healthcare workers, those who download Hollywood movies from illicit sources and, of course, internet criminals. Many of our retail clients who use a VPN tend to be a bit conspiratorial and think that everyone is watching them. But you, Average Joe and Mundane Sally, don’t need the extra cost and headache of configuring a VPN.

But if you do need a VPN, my advice is to go big or go home. You will have a difficult time finding a fast, high-quality “free” VPN app. The best ones are from ExpressVPN and NordVPN and they will cost you about $5.00 per month.

Jim Fisher owns Excel Computer Services in Florence. Reach him at www.ExcelAL.com