Originally published April 21, 2021
Even before the global pandemic, there was a move in corporate America to have staff work from home. Nowadays, working from home has become a necessity to keep us healthy and productive. The problem is that it is a herculean task for us to access the resources of our work network from our home network.
This difficulty stems from the internet being a scary place. Our routers and firewalls shield our networks from this pandemonium. The catch is that the same protections that keep the chaos out keep us out as well.
But there is a way to dig a virtual tunnel through the internet maelstrom bridging one network to another: a VPN.
When set up correctly and when turned on, a Virtual Private Network performs a feat of software magic, virtually teleporting the computer from one place to somewhere else. For example, a speed test here in Central Florida says the nearest server is in Orlando, 47 miles away. But when I turn on my VPN, suddenly the closest server is now in Miami—some 274 miles away!
While having my computer virtually travel hundreds of miles is a fun parlor trick, VPNs do so much more. The goal isn't to virtually fling my computer around the globe (that's what Tor is for). Instead, a VPN allows my computer on one network to appear on another. This relocation means two things: First, I can access all the network resources of work from the comfort of my own home. Second, tunneling through the VPN encrypts my internet use regardless of what network I'm using.
Now, on our work network (albeit virtually), my computer can get files and data off our network-area storage (NAS) or remote into my desktop at work. By using Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) or similar software, I can access my business-class workstation, almost regardless of the specs on my personal computer.
In this post-coronavirus era, the VPN allows us to be fully productive members of our companies while staying socially distant in the safety of our homes. From an IT perspective, there are some legitimate security concerns about allowing employees to use their personal computers to connect to the corporate network. However, we can mitigate many of these by requiring a technological minimum, following the principle of least privilege, and user training.
Moreover, as life returns to some semblance of normalcy, VPNs give employees the ability to participate in our business from anywhere in the world. Whether they're at the local coffee shop or some far-away local, they virtually connect to the same network. And that's the other great use of a VPN: it encrypts the tunnel that it creates between our current network and our work network. This encryption may not sound like much, but this is the very reason that all my devices always are on a VPN. Let me explain why.
Imagine that while we're waiting for coffee, I want to check my email. But the service here sucks. Of course, the coffee shop offers free WIFI, so I connect to their SSID and agree to the terms and conditions. Now I can access my email and surf the internet. The problem is that the very people providing me this internet can now see everything I do on their internet. This invasion of privacy is similar to the problem with using our ISP's DNS, but in that case, our ISP only knows the addresses for websites I'm wanting. Here, this coffee shop can see what I am doing on these websites.
Perhaps this isn't too concerning. After all, what is this coffee shop going to do with this information? But imagine that the WIFI I'm connected to isn't this coffee shop's but is instead from a black-hat hacker. Setting up a public internet spot and calling it "FreeCoffeeshopWifi" or even "Google Starbucks" takes minutes to configure. It is then a difficult task to tell this rogue hotspot from the real thing. These networks often don't waste my time having me agree to terms and conditions and can even be faster than the coffee shop's WIFI. Unfortunately, all of this comes at a cost: All of my data is now perfectly poised for an on-path attack (formerly man-in-the-middle).
In the first scenario, we have a business that could take advantage of me. In the second scenario, we have someone who will take advantage of me.
And yet, we can avoid all of this through the use of a VPN. You are also waiting in line at the same coffee shop, but you're running a VPN. The coffee shop or hacker can see that you are using their internet—but they haven't a clue what you're doing on it because the VPN tunnel encrypts everything. You can check your email and surf the web to your heart's content, and all of it is safely through the internet.
Do you need a work VPN? That depends upon your needs and the needs of your company. If both parties agree that you need to access corporate resources from your home or elsewhere, then asking a Managed Service Provider like us to configure your VPN is the right decision.
However, not all VPNs have to lead to your business. For those of us who just want the security that a VPN provides, there are many VPN services available. VPN providers are such an emerging business that companies like Brave have partnered with Guardian to offer VPN service, and companies like Mozilla (the people behind the Firefox browser) are making their own.
However, you can try out a great little VPN for free from Cloudflare. I'm hoping that name sounds familiar. Cloudflare is that company whose 18.104.22.168 is gunning for Google for the top public DNS provider. In addition to this public service, they also offer the 22.214.171.124 with WARP app that features a free VPN! This app is, in fact, the VPN I used to teleport to Miami at the beginning of this piece.
So, before you ever use the public WIFI at the coffee shop, the hotel, the mall, etc., do us all a favor and enter https://126.96.36.199 into your browser. Download and install Cloudflare's app and use this great little VPN to keep your internet safe.