SecureMac, Inc.

The Checklist Podcast

SecureMac presents The Checklist. Each week, Nicholas Raba, Nicholas Ptacek, and Ken Ray hit security topics for your Mac and iOS devices. From getting an old iPhone, iPad, iPod, Mac, and other Apple gear ready to sell to the first steps to take to secure new hardware, each show contains a set of easy to follow steps meant to keep you safe from identity thieves, hackers, malware, and other digital downfalls. Check in each Thursday for a new Checklist!

All About VPNs

Posted on January 12, 2017
  • What is a VPN?
  • Why should you use a VPN?
  • How to pick the right VPN.
  • Setting up a VPN on your Mac.
  • Setting up a VPN on your iOS device.

The topic for today: VPNs. Let’s kick things off by first going way back to when computers were first coming into their own, finding a place in the workplace or at home. In those early days, the ability to perform more work and new tasks on an individual machine was a marvel in its own right. Of course, it didn’t take long before people realized they could get more done if they connected those computers together. Thus, began the growth of computer networks, which eventually led to the creation of the Internet as we know it today.

Networks now power much of our world, from hospitals to government to financial institutions and even most of our entertainment. However, security over these networks is often a major concern. In a world where surveillance of the Internet is on the rise at the same time as threats from hackers and other malicious parties is growing, security is a real concern. Privacy goes hand in hand with that — and it’s often the foundation for good security. VPNs, or virtual private networks, are one way you can take matters into your own hands and improve your privacy online.

On today’s show, we’ll go over exactly what these are plus how you can use them on your Apple devices. Maybe you’ve even encountered a VPN before thanks to your employer or school; we’ll touch on where those fit into the VPN hierarchy, too. With all that in mind, let’s get started!

What is a VPN? So, you know that VPN stands for virtual private network — but what does that mean when you string all those words together? First, let’s begin with a distinction. The Internet is a network of networks all connected to share information. Some of these networks on the Internet are private, that is, they don’t allow just anyone to connect to them. For example, this might be something you’d find in a business — a company has its own internal network of computers sharing data.

Sometimes, someone will need to access this network when they’re physically separated from its location. With login credentials supplied by the company, the user can log in securely to the company’s servers; his or her computer will then appear as all its traffic is originating from the company network. It benefits from the company’s encryption, too. This is the “virtual” part of a VPN — you are using the Internet to connect to a network, rather than connecting more directly.

Today, VPNs occupy a space much larger than simply one for corporate telecommuters. VPNs offer several benefits to their users which we’ll touch upon in a moment. These benefits have led to the rise of commercial VPNs, which work a little differently. These are what we’ll mostly focus on in this discussion, as they’re the most easily accessible for all users.

Think of a commercial VPN as your own personal store for disguises to wear on the Internet. You connect your computer via a service to a VPN server over what is known as an encrypted “tunnel.” All information, like requested web URLs, passes back and forth over this tunnel securely. This server then passes your request along to whatever website you plugged into your browser bar. Your data appears to originate from the VPN server, no matter where it is in the world. If you’re in America connecting to a VPN server in Australia, you’ll look like an Aussie computer user based on your IP.

That’s all well and good, but for what kinds of things is this useful?

Why should you use a VPN? The reasons you should consider using a VPN are many, but the main advantage is clear and simple to understand: privacy. Right now, your Internet traffic is relatively exposed to the world. Not only do you expose your IP address and your machine to the websites you choose to visit, but your ISP — and of course, perhaps even the government — can snoop through your traffic with ease. That’s simply the nature of the way basic Internet connections work. When you connect to a VPN, though, the encrypted tunnel between your computer and VPN server ensures the data you transmit isn’t exposed. The privacy advantage you gain with a VPN is immense.

As a side note, we think it’s important to differentiate between privacy and anonymity. With a VPN, your browsing will be private — but not anonymous. While you’ll appear to originate from the VPN, your server still ultimately knows who you are. Using a different browsing solution in conjunction with a VPN, like Tor, is the only way to afford yourself a degree of true anonymity online today.

Besides privacy, VPNs have other practical applications as well. For example, what if you’re traveling and you need to connect to the web, but only insecure connections are available? Use your VPN. The encryption used shields sensitive data, like your passwords, from hackers who might be trying to sniff data from the network. Again, a VPN isn’t a foolproof solution here. However, it is going to protect you from many of the most common threats you might encounter on public wi-fi — so it’s worth your time.

One other perk to using a VPN is that you can take advantage of your new geographical IP to bypass region blocks put in place around the web. Let’s consider that travel example again. What if you’re overseas and you want to watch some Netflix, but the country you’re in has a different catalog available for viewing? That’s frustrating, but nothing a VPN can’t fix. You can quickly regain access to the US catalog with the right VPN.

So, overall, there are plenty of good reasons to try out a VPN. How do you pick one out, though? There are different types out there for different levels of need.

How to pick the right VPN. There’s fierce competition in the market for VPNs, and there are many different types you can find. We’ve discussed already, for example, the way businesses create their own VPNs for employees working away from the office. If you have access to a corporate VPN, it’s often good enough for protecting your privacy on public wi-fi and keeping your transmitted data locked down; however, it may not be as robust a solution as you might like. Also consider that use of your company VPN typically requires compliance with company network usage rules – so some websites and surfing may not be allowed. Plus, not everyone has access to the VPNs offered by businesses.

What if you want to be able to access your home network while you’re away? That’s a possibility. Some routers come factory equipped with the ability to enable VPN functionality. You can also choose to use the well-known custom router firmware called DD-WRT to customize a router of your choice to act as a VPN. This can range from extremely simple to highly technical, with a lot of middle ground. For the sake of time, we won’t delve into the many particular types of VPNs you can create with your home network. Broadly speaking, however, this is a good option if you only need basic VPN functionality — that is, the encryption and private browsing away from home. You’ll still mask your IP, but it will remain in your country of origin.

There are some basic online VPNs you can use as well. These often take the form of a browser plugin. One that many people have probably heard of is Hola Unblocker; it’s a solid option, and it provides you with the ability to set which country from which you want your browser’s IP address to originate. There are plenty of other options from which to choose. These services are a good middle ground between a home VPN and a commercial service. The ability to quickly select your server of choice is a plus! As always, do your research up front.
Finally, there are the standalone software VPNs, of which there are many. These offer perhaps the most robust solution for users looking for an all-around VPN solution. With high quality, high-bandwidth servers located all around the world, you can jump your IP around the globe. Plus, these services often have additional security and protections built into the software to keep you safe. As a software-based solution it means everything you do on your system is tunneled over the VPN (not just your web browser traffic). However, these services usually come with a monthly subscription fee to help offset the server costs.

A detailed VPN comparison chart can be found on That One Privacy Site. Additionally, PC Magazine recently published a great list of the Best VPN Services of 2017.

Setting up a VPN on your Mac. Okay, so you understand the benefits of a VPN, and now you want to use one on your Mac. How do you do that? The answers depend a little on which type of service you’ll be using. For example, if all you want to do is use a browser-based VPN to get around a block on some webpages, installing it to your browser is self-explanatory. In a similar vein, setting up a router-based VPN has more to do with the actual router than it does your Mac. However, connecting to your home VPN or a work VPN works much the same regarding setup. Let’s quickly run over where to look for these settings.

First, head over to your Mac’s system preferences and call up your network settings. Click the plus button to add a new connection. Select your interface type as VPN. At this stage, you’ll need to know the basic info about the VPN to which you’re connecting. That means the type of server it is, the server address, and your username and password for the network. After entering all of this, you simply need to press “connect” — and that’s all! Now you can activate your VPN connection whenever you need.

As for standalone services, the process is, of course, much easier. Just download and install the client provided by your VPN company. Browse the available servers and choose the one you want to use. It really is that simple — for many VPN programs, it’s just a matter of clicking a button and suddenly browsing privately. What about when you’re away from home and all you’ve got is your iPhone, though?

Setting up a VPN on your iOS device. When it comes to setting up a VPN on an iOS device, the process is roughly the same if you already know the server to which you want to connect. In your Settings, there is a “VPN’ option under your Network tab just as on your Mac. Here, you’ll want to plug in the same relevant information as before — username, password, address, and so forth. After completing setup, it’s a simple toggle in your Network settings to turn it on or off.

Of course, there are also plenty of trusted VPN apps available in the App Store as well, like NordVPN or VyprVPN and we’ll include some options in our writeup for this episode. Choose these if you don’t have a home VPN or another option you can use for a connection. While it will cost you some cash, the reward is being able to browse more privately and securely even when your mobile device is all you have. Plus, when necessary, you can even tether another device to your phone for a VPN hotspot.

Outro: Well, that should put a bow on this discussion. Whether the only Wi-Fi in range is a network you can’t fully trust, or you just want to improve your overall security on your home network, a VPN can be an excellent option for many users. Plus, with the ability to take your VPN on the go with your iOS device, superior control over your online privacy is within easy reach wherever you are. Once you master the setup process, using a VPN is relatively easy and on the road towards being a more seamless experience every day. We hope you’ve found this overview of virtual private networks to be helpful, and we also hope you’ll use this opportunity to rethink about how you browse. Join us again next time!

That wraps things up for this episode! If you’d like more information on the topic we covered today, or if there’s a specific topic you’d like to see featured on a future episode, send us an e-mail at checklist@securemac.com!

Join our mailing list for the latest security news and deals