Free internet is easy to come by these days. Free, safe internet? That’s another story. It’s quite easy for someone on the same network to intercept your traffic, meaning that they can see the contents of your emails, your social media traffic, your chats—basically any internet that’s not encrypted by default. If you are connected on a plane, in a café, or in another public space, there is a very good chance someone is listening. It could just be for curiosity, it could be criminal, but it is quite common. Fortunately, it’s also easy to protect yourself.
When you are using a public Wi-Fi network, you should always, always, always use something called a virtual private network. Lots of security measures are optional, but unless you want some random person snooping on everything you do online, a VPN is a must.
A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between you and your provider. Your internet traffic goes through that tunnel and then out to the rest of the internet. It’s not exactly the same as encrypting all your data—a VPN only encrypts it for that trip to the provider. But by doing so, you can stop someone from trying to see what is being sent to the provider.
Setting up a VPN on your computer or phone requires a bit of work to get it configured, but it’s not that difficult. The effort and tech skill is similar to setting up a new mailbox on an email program like Microsoft Outlook. Once it’s configured, you simply click to connect and you’re set. Here’s how to get started:
Step 1. Get a VPN service. You may be able to get one through your job or school. You can also find an independent provider. There are free services that tend to be supported by putting ads in your browser, and paid services that are ad-free. PC magazine has a good review of free VPN services, and Reviews.com did a good overview of all services (including very affordable paid ones). A good service will run about $75 a year, with some budget options closer to $40 and high-end packages that easily handle heavy streaming closer to $100.
Step 2. Get your VPN credentials into your device. Your VPN provider will likely give you detailed instructions, but the basic idea is the same everywhere.
The quick summary:
- Go to your computer’s network settings or your phone’s security settings and click to add a connection. VPN should be an option for the connection type.
- Configure it by putting in the type of VPN service, server address of your VPN provider and your VPN username. Your provider will give you all this information.
- Add in your authentication information. That will include your password plus something called a “shared secret” that your VPN provider will give you.
And that’s basically it for the setup! To use the VPN, just click “Connect”.
Step 3. Remember to turn it on when you’re on public Wi-Fi. Step 2 only sets up your connection. That does not mean you are always using the VPN. You need to connect every time you join a new Wi-Fi network. If there is one, I recommend checking the box in settings to show your VPN in the computer’s status or menu bar. This makes it a one-click process to connect, and you can easily see if it is active or not.
One side note about VPNs: They change where it looks like you’re located when you access the web. If your VPN provider is based in California and you live in Florida, your traffic will look like you are connecting from California. That may affect your localized web searches: If you search for “pizza delivery,” you’ll get shops that deliver in California. It may also affect streaming video from Netflix, your cable provider, or sports streaming services. If your VPN is elsewhere, it can change the market you are in which may affect the shows (especially sports) that you can stream. You can always turn it off if you are watching video, but it is worth being aware that these issues might pop up.
This article is part of the cybersecurity self-defense installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.