They Are Listening and Watching Everything

A record number of people have been shopping online this holiday season. The holidays are a time when people increasingly communicate with family and friends with always-connected devices. NPR has published a recent article referencing Mozilla’s “Privacy Not Included” guide, which reviews Internet-connected products based on the privacy features they provide. We recommend you read the article and check out the guide before you buy that newest must-have gift for friends and family.


Stay Safe Online: Use a VPN

We continue to make rapid advances in technology and we are spending more and more of our time online performing tasks that used to chain us to our computers at home. While we experience the freedom and increased productivity this brings, we need to be aware that we are increasingly exposing ourselves to possible attack over the internet.  With much more powerful cell phones than even a decade ago, it’s become commonplace for most of us to bank and pay bills online, communicate with family, check our email, read news, and frequent social media sites.

It used to be that you only had to worry about security on your home network, but those times are long gone.  Before we had faster cellular data speeds like 3G and 4G, users had to rely on public Wi-Fi.  It used to be you’d have to go to a coffee shop or a hotel to find reliable(ish) Wi-Fi, but now you can hop on at most restaurants, retail stores, and even some outdoor public places. Most people don’t question connecting to these networks and don’t think about the digital trail they leave behind.  Since we are doing so much more of our business––both personal and personal––on the go, how do we secure ourselves from malicious actors?

One of the easiest ways to enhance our personal network security, short of not jumping on public Wi-Fi at all, is to use a virtual private network, or VPN.  Think of a VPN like a tunnel on the information superhighway, to use an old term.  Using a VPN puts your data inside that tunnel so that nobody can see it, with the possible exception of the VPN provider (often your data is encrypted from the VPN provider as well).  If, for example, you’re on a public network and someone was able to hijack the network and see all of the traffic, your activity would not be seen by the hacker because everything you send and receive through a VPN is in an encrypted tunnel.  

Many online banking services and other activities of a more sensitive nature use HTTPS security on their sites which does encrypt activity between you and the website, but a hacker could still monitor what sites you are visiting even if they couldn’t see what data you are transmitting.  More websites are using HTTPS, but it’s still a good idea to use a VPN in addition to secure browsing.  A VPN hides and encrypts all network data traffic, not just web browsing.  

There are free options when choosing a VPN, but you want to make sure the app you use is from a company you trust.  Paid VPN apps exist as well; one app that is particularly easy to set up and use is Encrypt.me, formerly Cloak VPN.  Setup is fairly straightforward, you can use it on multiple devices (e.g., phones, desktops, laptops, etc.) with one subscription, and you can set the app up to automatically connect to untrusted networks and add any trusted networks like your home network or a friend’s house, for example, to a list of networks that the app can ignore.  The app has different tiers and pricing depending on your needs; you can even purchase a week or month long pass for trips.

No matter which VPN you choose (there are many!), make sure that you do your homework and read many reviews until you know you can trust the provider and that the app is easy for you to use. You can almost always try the app out for a trial period to see how you like it and see if it suits your needs.