VPNs: The Case for Securing Our Online Activities

Let’s face it. Browsing the Internet these days without a modicum of protection exposes you to numerous risks, some of which we previously discussed.

With more Kenyans embracing the Internet wholeheartedly as it affords them the chance to socialize and transact business, there is need to take a few precautions.

Now, most people have heard of VPNs, some even know what they are, but the only thing is that they could be least bothered to use one.
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) were initially developed to allow employees working remotely to access their corporate resources back at the office over an Internet connection. In this post-Snowden era, however, commercial VPNs are taking up the center stage as some of the most crucial tools an Internet user can have for accessing the World Wide Web privately and without fear of snooping eyes.

The How:

In connecting to the Internet, you first connect to your Internet Service Provider (ISP), and this can be one of the telecommunications providers such as Safaricom or Telkom, or services such as Faiba and Zuku. These ISPs then connect you to whatever website or internet resource you are interested in visiting.

Your internet traffic, needless to mention, passes via the ISP servers, and these folks sure as heck can view it. Now that Kenya is yet to have a data protection act, they can do whatever they want with your data traffic information with virtually minimal consequences.

Enter the VPN. Your Internet traffic now goes through a server run by your VPN provider via an encrypted VPN tunnel. In essence, all your data traffic from your computer to the VPN server is encrypted, barring anyone other than yourself and the VPN server to see it. Yep, not even your ISP can tell what you are up to, other than the fact you are connected to a VPN server.

The Why:

For starters, how about knowing that whatever websites you visit are your business and yours alone? Your ISP, prying government, nosey IT staff at work, hackers… none of these entities get to know what it is you are up to on the Internet.

Your ISP, for instance, cannot throttle your connection based on what it is you are accessing as it has no idea what kind of traffic you are moving. And if that does not capture your imagination, knowing that you can comfortably access your bank account using a VPN over public WiFi should, at the very least, give you pause. No more worrying about connecting to an evil twin hotspot where a hacker can then proceed to steal your identity or sensitive information in phishing attacks.

Other reasons for using VPNs include masking your geographical location. This makes it appear as if you are accessing the Internet from another place or country, and can be useful for those times you need to access content that is blocked to you on account of your location. Location-restricted internet radio is one such example, as is US Netflix if you are in Africa. That you can also circumvent censorship and monitoring by all manner of snoops, governments included, is a big boon that comes with appearing as if you are somewhere else altogether.

Finally, some VPN providers enhance your online security by packaging anti-malware and anti-spyware features. These go a long way in ensuring that you do not download trojans or viruses from the Internet. Whether or not your VPN gives you this premium feature, however, it is good practice to ensure that you use HTTPS whenever you can while browsing to be on the safe side.

The Downside:

One of the things to expect when using a VPN is that the Internet speed will slow down. The stronger the encryption used on your tunnel, the higher the chances that your Internet connection will be noticeably slower, thanks to the fact that processing power is required to encrypt and decrypt data. Other factors such as the extra mileage travelled by your data – determined by server location, the bandwidth available to you, and the server load also determine the speed that you eventually get on your connection.

Logging. Every time you connect to a VPN, you entrust your service provider with your data. It is, therefore, prudent to enquire about logging policies lest your data and location information as well is turned over to governments or other entities thus making moot the whole idea of securing your Internet communications.

VPN service providers don’t have to log your data, but some choose to. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to steer clear of those that do or not.

Finally, the type of protocol employed by the VPN provider might be a matter of concern to those who are really security oriented. These include SSL/TLS (OpenVPN support), IPSec, PPTP, L2TP, and others. While each protocol has its advantages and disadvantages, those paranoid about security may be concerned about specific vulnerabilities in certain protocols as it is likely that an attacker may try to siphon up one’s Internet traffic for later analysis. While OpenVPN offers excellent security with low processing overhead, PPTP uses weaker encryption and has some security issues.

(This article has been written by Evanson Kariuki, a Journalist, Tech Analyst and Academic Writer)

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