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In honor of Halloween, we delve into the magical and mysterious world of virtual private networks.

A reader inquired whether he needs a VPN, the internet’s version of a ghost:

“I was wondering if you could delve into the inner workings of VPNs. I have Express VPN, which seems to work well enough, but I’m not exactly sure what all it does and doesn’t do for me. I realize that it anonymizes my location so that some other sites think I’m in Chicago, but I don’t know exactly how it protects me from tracking or other privacy invasions.”

A VPN is a sleight of hand that turns you more or less invisible on the internet, or at least makes it seem that you’re somewhere, or sometimes even someone, you’re not.

A VPN specially encrypts your communications and then, as the reader notes, routes them through one or more network servers other than the one supplied by your internet service provider. Thus, a snoop or hacker first needs to break the encryption and then figure out who you are and where you are located.

With the rampant computer hacking and fraud these days, internet users seek out protection. A VPN offers some from the nefarious ghouls who try to intercept and/or steal your data. This applies whether accessing your bank account, making online purchases or sending emails. If you are using your phone’’s cellular data connection, its encryption usually provides protection but won’t absolutely conceal your location.

Regardless of all the publicity, a VPN does not necessarily benefit many, if not most people. If you conduct internet transactions from home with wired Ethernet or properly password-protected Wi-Fi connections, a VPN provides modest additional safety other than concealing your location. If you live your life at Espresso Royale, Panera or other public Wi-Fi locales, a VPN offers an additional layer of security.

Some users illicitly employ VPNs to trick content providers, such as Netflix, to view programming not offered in the U.S. or their hometown (such as sports) or home country. A VPN may position servers in countries all over the globe, so Netflix thinks you’re in Morocco rather than Mahomet.

Although some VPNs offer a free tier, those are limited and frequently fraught with limitations. Nearly all VPNs come with two negative aspects:

  • They can be expensive. Most start with a basic tier at about $5 a month, which adds up to $60 a year, and many cost twice or three times that much.
  • They also slow things down. By bouncing your data through a distant server, email and web browsing slow considerably. I tried a major VPN and unsubscribed after a week because all internet activity on my phone tried my patience.

One other consideration involves the integrity and location of the VPN. At least a couple dozen VPNs are vying for your business, and they are able to snoop on your data if they desire. This is especially true of those based in areas of the world with loose legal systems lacking internet safeguards.

VPNs offer a layer of protection for those who may be lax about their computer security or operate in areas of particular vulnerability, such as hotels and coffee shops. I’ll have a column with security suggestions this winter.

A reader pointed out that I mixed up “gigahertz” and “gigabits per second” in my last column. I wrote: “Anticipating future internet improvements, the Ethernet input is 2.5 gigahertz.” My mistake. That should have been 2.5 gigabits per second.

Finally, after contacting my credit-card company and the Better Business Bureau, I finally received a recalcitrant partial refund for the used router I returned to buyyour

ownmodem.com, also operating as dontlease

yourmodem.com.

Dealing with this company was not pleasant, and I don’t recommend doing business with them. If you don’t believe me, read their user reviews on the Better Business Bureau website.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at hifiguy@volo.net.

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