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by Ray Carlson

Q: My anti-virus offered to set up a VPN when I used the public computers at the Library. What is that and do I want it?

A: A VPN is a Virtual Private Network. When a person using a VPN connects to the Internet, their computer is connected to the private network even if the computer is connected to a public network. All messages sent through that network are encrypted. The user does not recognize any difference, but hackers on that public network only see the encrypted messages. Without a VPN, a hacker who is on the same public network can read what you enter using standard readily available software.

Many websites like banks and stores use a secure connection that encrypts any information entered after you enter a username and password. Such sites are recognized by the web address beginning with https instead of http. Good password management software effectively hides passwords. Adding a VPN adds one more level of security in case these others are compromised and hides your identity and confidential information you enter anywhere.

Some VPNs are available for free with Hotspot Shield the highest rated. That service inserts ads but has an elite version for $29.95 per year that is ad free with increased malware protection. As you mention, some antivirus programs have added a VPN option. For example, Avast offers the VPN for free for 24 hours and then charges $59.99 per year. The Avast VPN is easier to setup and operate since it is integrated with their free antivirus program. Several other VPNs are available for free or offer extended free trials or charge modest fees. See this site for a list. One complaint is that VPNs may slow Internet speed. Try a couple to see which works best with your setup.

This discussion summarizes a complex topic. The Prescott Computer Society, at its meeting on September 21 in the Library at 1 PM, will have a more extended discussion of this topic.

Published: Courier 9/15/13 - Page 4C