A blog about "nothing"!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

VPN--worth it???

I recently subscribed to a VPN (virtual private network) service.  I did it for two reasons--to watch "Downton Abbey" as it was being shown in the UK and for increased security.  I'm still trying it out, it has been an interesting experience to say the least.  As for the being able to watch UK television, it works great.  I'm still not 100% convinced on the increased security.

A VPN is a direct connection to another point in the internet--a "tunnel" so to speak.  Many companies use VPN technology to permit their employees access to their company computers without the risk of outside sources hacking in to their systems.  The company my husband works for uses one since most of their employees are on the road.  I was impressed with the way it works so I decided to try it myself.  I surfed around the net and did some reading and finally decided on one.  It charges a monthly service fee (currently $6.95 per month) but many of them offer a significant reduction if you subscribe for an entire year all at once.  There was some software to download and once I had my user ID and password, I logged in and I was pretty much ready to go.  I did have a little trouble getting logged in, but later found that the problem was on their end, not mine.  I hadn't picked the best time to decide to try it!  I haven't had any problems with it since though, the most complicated part was figuring out how to disconnect it or change locations, but once I learned how, it is easy peasy. 

The company I am using offers connection from several different countries as well as numerous connections in the US.  This is great for someone who travels a lot.  If you have a subscription to Netflix, Hulu or another streaming service, you will find that you can't access it from outside of the US.  With a VPN connection, you could be in Japan, but set it up through one of the US servers and now you can.  If this is what you are going to be using it for you will need to do a bit of research on the different companies to find out where their connection points are set up, I was amazed at the different ranges that were offered by various companies.  How does this work?  When you connect at a different point through a VPN, you are assigned a new ISP number for where that point is.  For example--if I don't connect via VPN, my ISP number says that I am in Pittsburgh, PA.  If I go through the VPN, I can connect through various points from other locations and my ISP number reflects that location.  If I want to watch UK programming I simply select a location in the UK to connect through and suddenly I'm "transported", giving me access to things that might have been blocked if I had been using an ISP based in the US.  Sounds complicated, but it's really pretty simple to use.  I do get a chuckle when I am connected via a UK location, suddenly all the ads and such are now for UK based companies and any money references are in pounds instead of dollars.  That took a bit of getting used to.  Keep in mind this works both ways too--some US sites will not permit you to log in from a foreign country, so you may have to change your connection point to a US based site if this happens.  This is why you need to do your homework on the connection points in advance and subscribe to the plan that best suits your needs. 

Now for the security point--since you are using a direct connection instead of bouncing all over the internet for the first available open spot, you are at a reduced risk of someone getting access to your information.  To me this is a great selling point for anyone who does any kinds of bill payment/banking transactions on the internet.  However, I am not convinced that this completely eliminates ANY risk, just reduces it.  I have noticed a significant reduction in the amount of SPAM emails that I am receiving.  Usually I get anywhere from 20 - 30 of them overnight in my one account, you can imagine how surprised I was when I only got 3!  You can also change your connection point every single time you log in to a banking location making it next to impossible for a hacker to track you, reducing your risk.  I'm still playing around with it to see what works best, but I have found this very interesting. 

So the big question--is it legal?  YES, a VPN connection in the US is perfectly legal.  There are the "hacker/geek" types who have the know how to set up a VPN connection to use it for illegal activities.  That isn't legal.  But subscribing to a VPN in the US is not illegal, in fact most of the subscription services have very strict rules as to what you can use the VPN for and if you violate them, you're out.  (and possibly the FBI or some other law enforcement agency may come to visit!)  Watching television in foreign countries via VPN currently is a gray area in the US.  The reason is that many countries outside of the US charge their residents an annual licensing fee (I know for a fact the UK does) and they have no way of collecting that from someone outside of the country.  I imagine they aren't thrilled about this technology being used this way, but as long as you aren't abusing it (ie. making copies and selling them) , I don't think they are really going to pursue doing away with it.  One thing I have noticed recently is that the time between shows being aired in the UK and the US are getting shorter, and several shows in particular are showing the newest season here within days of it being aired there.  Perhaps they have realized that there are ways around their technology and have adopted the "if you can't beat them, join them" philosophy. 

Right now I am doing the month to month fee, I am still not sure I want to continue with it.  If I do I will probably pay the annual fee and be done with it, you end up getting a whole year for just under half price that way.  I'm going to give it a couple of more weeks to see.  I haven't been home enough lately to use it to it's full potential.  I will keep you posted!  If you have had experience with a VPN, be sure to post in the comments section.   If you would like to learn more and understand geek-speak, there is a great explanation of VPN on Wikipedia.  I tried best to explain it in a black and white version.  :)

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