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A VPN to call your own

You can have a virtual private network of your own even if your company doesn't offer you the service and you've no tech. skills thanks to VPN services.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

With Firesheep potentially looking over your Web-browsing shoulder and password management becoming essential, wouldn't be nice if you could easily keep all your Internet traffic really secure? As it happens, there's long been a way to keep your online wandering secret: Virtual Private Networks (VPN).

If you're lucky, your company, school, or some other organization provides you with a VPN service. Most of the time you may have used this just to work on office matters from the road or home. You can, and should, also use it anytime you're on the Internet. Far more so than many Wi-Fi security measures, application proxies, or the Web-based security measures such as Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or TLS/SSL over HTTP (HTTPS), a VPN can keep your information safe all the way from your laptop to servers and back again.

Even if your company doesn't provide a VPN though you can also use VPN firmware on your home router, such as DD-WRT, or on a computer working as a VPN server with a program like OpenVPN. All these require at least some technical expertise to set up. But, what if you're all thumbs when it comes to technology? Well you still have an answer: a VPN provider.

These are businesses, such as Banana VPN; Black Logic, and StrongVPN, which will set you up with a VPN. Generally speaking, although the companies tend to talk in terms of 'buying" the service, what you end up doing is paying a monthly service fee of $15 to $20 a month.

Is it worth for security alone? Me? I have my own VPN setups, but yes, if I were often working on sensitive subjects and I wasn't technically adept, I'd seriously consider these services.

These VPN services can offer other advantages as well. For example, if you're in Canada, but you want to watch a U.S. show on Hulu, you're usually out of luck. But, if you use a VPN to obtain a U.S. Internet Protocol (IP) address you'll be able to watch Glee, 30 Rock, or Family Guy. Or, in my case, as a serious British TV fan, with a UK IP address, I could get access to the BBC's iPlayer Internet-cast of BBC television shows.

Another plus that some VPN providers offer is anonymous Web browsing. With this, you can roam the Internet without being tracked. In addition, if your ISP blocks some programs, such as VOIP (Voice over the Internet Protocol) Applications like Skype, you can use a VPN to get around such restrictions.

Even so, these are pricey services. There are also several potential problems. The most important of these is that a given service may already have too many users for your area. If a service doesn't have enough VPN concentrators for its customers you may see poor Internet speeds or even be unable to make a connection at all. So, before subscribing to a VPN service, check out what their customers have to say about their service, before sending them your credit-card number.

If they offer a free trial, take it. After all, you're paying real money for a VPN service. It's unlikely you'll get as much bandwidth from any of these services if you already have 10Mbps (Megabit per second) or higher bandwidth from your ISP. But, if they only deliver 1990s' 128Kbps (Kilobits per second) speeds for your VPN, they're not worth using even if they were free. That said, the right VPN service may just be right for you at these prices.

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