Sometimes the internet can make the average person feel like they are in the middle of a stadium, with all of the different eyes peering in on what they are doing online. More than a few people can recall instances of themselves having a conversation with a friend, only to see an ad or an article related to that topic a few hours later. These types of instances give people pause, and it has them asking themselves a few questions, such as;
Who else is listening to me over this device? How much do the really know about me? Is anything I say truly private anymore?
Over the last decade there have been numerous companies that have been established to solve this problem. In fact, this problem has its own industry, known as the cyber security industry. Offering all sorts of services from identity theft protection, to firewalls and antivirus protection, the cyber security industry has taken many approaches to protecting people’s information and privacy. There is one method that will allow the average consumer to protect himself without complicated technical methods, and that is the setup of a VPN, or virtual private network.
A virtual private network, according to Wikipedia, is a private network extended on a public network, set up so that the private network acts as the public network. In other words, the user of the private network uses it to give the appearance of still being on the public network. This allows protection by giving the user the appearance of being in a different location from their actual location, so their activity is not connected to them by their location. Because of this, someone living in Cleveland, OH could log in to a virtual private network in Los Angeles, and every site that person visits will believe they are from Los Angeles. A much more technical explanation of the technology can be found here.
For the layman, you need to see the VPN like this; suppose you are having a conversation with someone. You tell them your name and where you are from. The conversation goes well at first, then takes a turn for the worst. This person decides to look for you to “settle the score”, whatever that may be. Since you told them you are Robert Smith from Wisconsin, that guy will look for a Robert Smith from Wisconsin, in Wisconsin, leaving you alone in Florida.
A VPN is how two computers would tell that story. While you would tell someone a false story to protect yourself from strangers, your computer system would log into a virtual private network and interact with the internet from that network, sort of “cloaking” your actual location while you browse.