Data security with VPN

Ask any security professional about strengthening your computer’s security, and he or she will advise setting up a VPN. It’s right in your PC’s settings, you’ll be told.

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That’s great advice — if you’re a security professional, or are otherwise pretty computer-savvy. But what about the rest of us who don’t have a clue what VPN even stands for, let alone how it works?

“VPN stands for ‘virtual private network,'” said David Gorodyansky, chief executive
“It is a connection between a secure server and your computer, through which you can access the internet.”

A VPN lets you secure your web session, transmitted data, financial transactions and personal information online, no matter where you are.

Security experts warn against using public Wi-Fi hotspots, such as in a coffee shop, airport or hotel lobby, due to the risk of your connection being hijacked or snooped upon. Internet service providers may invade your privacy by selling data about your online habits to advertisers. A VPN eliminates those risks.

A VPN also helps to protect you from identity theft; hides your IP address, making it harder for third parties to track you; accesses all content privately without censorship; and bypasses firewalls.

Send a check, not cash

“Think of it along the lines of sending a payment to a company,” said Brian Monkman, technology programs manager at ICSA Labs, a network-security testing and product-assurance company based in Mechanicsburg, Pa. “You could put cash in an envelope and send it — which, assuming no one got to the envelope prior to its arriving at its destination, would work.

“Or you could write a check and send it,” Monkman explained. “That simple step increases security. VPN strengthens security by making it harder for eavesdropping or interception of your connection. And if your connection is intercepted, it makes it difficult to actually decipher what is being transmitted.”

To put it simply, a VPN is essential for anyone who regularly uses a laptop from outside the office to connect with the company computer network. If you think your company doesn’t need one, think again. We recently reviewed several paid and free VPN services to help you protect your data.

“People seem to be largely unaware of the risks of browsing the Internet unprotected, or mistakenly believe that their antivirus [software] protects them while browsing,” Gorodyansky said. “We need to raise awareness of internet security concerns, and make sure that people connect with a VPN, ensuring their protection.”

If a VPN is set up properly, said Scottie Cole, a server engineer with Gulf Breeze, Fla.-based online-security provider AppRiver, it’s as if all the network users, whether on site or in a remote location, are in the same building.

“Client VPNs allow individual users to connect to a central location via their mobile device or computer,” Cole said. “Once authenticated, they then have access to the main location’s infrastructure. Remote offices use VPN so that they connect to their main location securely by encrypting all the traffic through a VPN tunnel.”

VPN technology has been available for regular PCs for almost two decades, and during that time, it’s been diversified.

“It is useful to know that there isn’t just one type of VPN,” Monkman said. “There are SSL [secure socket layer] VPNs, [Internet Protocol security] VPNs, hybrid VPNs. All have characteristics unique to the implementation, and some have very specific purpose-built uses.”
Not just for laptops anymore

Now the use of mobile VPN technology on devices such as smartphones and tablets is becoming increasingly common. With the rollout of mobile banking apps, and with corporate email and authentication programs such as RSA’s SecurID tokens being pushed to mobile devices, secure communication is even more important than ever before.

Many of us use our smartphones and tablets to conduct sensitive transactions, but rarely think about whether or not the information is secure. For that reason, Monkman pointed out, everyone should have the VPN capabilities on their mobile device activated.

How you activate a VPN client will depend on the device, the mobile network-access provider and the application developer.

For example, Android and Apple’s iOS both have VPN capability built in. On an Android device, for instance, the VPN settings are found under the Wireless and Networks menu. On an Apple mobile device, it’s under Settings –> General.

Older versions of these operating systems may not have the same functionality, and might require third-party applications to be installed.

“Connecting to a VPN concentrator with a client VPN is usually done with a username/password, a security certificate, or two-factor authentication like a token and username/password,” Cole said. “Connecting depends on how the authentication is setup on the VPN concentrator.”

But the average user doesn’t need to know all that. Dozens of VPN clients — the end-user software — are available in Apple’s iTunes App Store, and there are nearly 200 in Android’s Google Play store. (However, many of the Android don’t work, steal your personal data or are downright malicious.)

For laptops and desktop computers, all modern operating systems have VPN capabilities, and there are coun

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VPNs are private networks inside the internet

It’s there in the name: a VPN is a private network. There are many such networks, like VPNCENTER. As with any private network, the information you send and receive on a VPN is walled off from other computers and the internet.

It’s a bit like your home or business network – the one you use to share files between devices across your router. Nobody outside the network can see that data if your network is properly secured (for example, with WPA2 encryption). That’s why a VPN gives you security.

The key difference is in the “virtual” part of VPN. Your home or business network is secure because it’s physically separate from the internet. (You could unplug the Internet connection and still share local files on it, if you wanted.) A VPN, on the other hand, is accessed through the Internet.

Your data and identity, therefore, have to be secured in other ways.

How to connect to a VPN

How can you connect to a private network over the notoriously public internet? To use a VPN, both the network server (at the VPN provider’s side) and the client (your computer) need dedicated software.

On the provider’s side is a remote access server (RAS). It’s this RAS that your computer connects to when using a VPN. The RAS requires your computer to provide valid credentials, which it authenticates using any one of a number of authentication methods. That’s the VPN’s first layer of security – but it certainly isn’t the last.

On the client side, your computer uses client software to establish and maintain your connection to the VPN. The client software sets up a tunneled connection to the RAS, as well as managing the encryption that secures your connection. Let’s have a closer look at what these are.

Tunneling is a process by which data is sent privately over the internet, via a VPN.

To understand tunneling, we have to remember that all data transmitted over the internet is split into small pieces called “packets.” Every packet also carries additional information, including the protocol (such as HTTP, Telnet, Bittorrent and so on) it’s being used for and the sender’s IP address.

On a VPN’s tunneled connection, every data packet is placed inside another data packet before it is sent over the internet. The process is called encapsulation.

It’s easy to imagine how useful encapsulation and tunneling are in securing your data. The outer packet provides a layer of security that keeps the contents safe from public view.

Encrypting the packets

It’s not enough just to tunnel data sent over a VPN. The next layer of security is encryption, where data is encoded so that packets can only be read by your VPN client and server, which are securely connected together.

VPNs can use a number of security protocols to encrypt data. The most common are IPSec (Internet Protocol Security) and OpenVPN. They work by:

  1. Encrypting each encapsulated data packet’s contents with an encryption key. The key is shared only between the VPN’s server and clients.
  2. Using a sub-protocol called Encapsulation Header to hide certain packet information, including the sender’s identity, during transmission.

These two key features, along with others, keep your data and identity private online.

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