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Rich Warren | The mysterious world of VPNs | Science and Technology

Science and Technology


In honor of Halloween, we delve into the magical and mysterious world of VPNs.

One reader asked if he needs a VPN, the internet version of ghosts:

“I was wondering if you could delve into the inner workings of VPNs. I have an Express VPN, which seems to work well enough, but I’m not quite sure what it does and doesn’t do for me. I realize it hides my identity from my location until you think Some other sites I’m in Chicago, but I don’t know exactly how it protects me from tracking or other breaches of privacy.”

A VPN is a sleight of hand that makes you somewhat invisible on the internet, or at least makes it look like somewhere, or sometimes even someone, you’re not.

A VPN privately encrypts your communications and then, as the reader notes, routes them through one or more network servers other than the one provided by your ISP. Thus, a snooper or hacker first needs to crack the encryption and then find out who you are and where you are.

With computer hacking and fraud rampant these days, internet users are looking for protection. VPN offers some common ghouls trying to intercept and/or steal your data. This applies whether accessing your bank account, making online purchases, or sending emails. If you use your phone’s cellular data connection, its encryption will usually provide protection but won’t completely hide your location.

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Regardless of all the hype, a VPN doesn’t necessarily benefit many, if not most people. If you transact online from home using wired Ethernet or properly password-protected Wi-Fi connections, a VPN offers modest additional security beyond masking your location. If you live your life at an Espresso Royale, Panera, or other public Wi-Fi location, a VPN provides an extra layer of security.

Some users illegally use VPNs to trick content providers, such as Netflix, into showing programs not shown in the United States, in their hometown (such as sports), or in their home country. The VPN may place servers in countries all over the world, so Netflix thinks you’re in Morocco instead of Mahomet.

Although some VPNs offer a free level, they are limited and often fraught with restrictions. Almost all VPNs come with two downsides:

  • It can be expensive. Most start at a basic level around $5 a month, which goes up to $60 a year, and many cost two or three times that amount.
  • They also slow things down. By bouncing your data through a remote server, email and web browsing is significantly slow. I tried a major VPN and canceled my subscription after a week because all the internet activity on my phone tried my patience.
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Another consideration involves the safety and location of the VPN. At least a few dozen VPNs compete for your business, and they are able to snoop on your data if they wish. This is especially true for those in regions of the world with loose legal systems that lack Internet safeguards.

VPNs provide a layer of protection for those who may be lenient about the security of their computers or work in areas with certain vulnerabilities, such as hotels and cafes. I will have a column with security suggestions this winter.

One reader pointed out that I mixed up “Gigahertz” and “Gigabit per second” in my last column. You wrote: “In anticipation of future improvements to the Internet, the Ethernet input is 2.5 GHz.” My fault. It should have been 2.5 Gbps.

Finally, after contacting my credit card company and the Better Business Bureau, I finally received a renegade partial refund for the used router I had prepared to purchase., also works as dontlease

Dealing with this company was not pleasant, and I would not recommend doing business with them. If you don’t believe me, read their user reviews on the Better Business Bureau website.

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Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime consumer electronics reviewer. Email him at

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