Love taking your computer or tablet to the local coffee shop and checking your email or going the occasional online task with their fast Internet connection? Me too. But the problem is that you have no idea who might be monitoring that connection. How can you protect yourself?
Modern coffee shops and other places with public wi-fi project an aura of protection and security by requiring you to enter a password that you have to get from the barista or agree to a page of terms and services that specifies you can’t do anything malicious. What they don’t mention is that everyone else at that establishment is also on the very same network. At home you wouldn’t want random strangers on your wifi network, so why would you want to share one with people you don’t know at the local coffee shop, diner, library, co-working space? (Hint: You don’t. You want to click for a vpn download instead)
Many Web sites now assist by having an encrypted connection between your browser and their data – the “s” in “https” on sites like AskDaveTaylor – but that doesn’t hide that you’re visiting the site. Did you want that scroungy dude by the front door really building a log of every site you visit while you’re online so they can try to scam you as a representative of the bank they know you use? I didn’t think so.
ENTER THE VIRTUAL PRIVATE NETWORK (VPN)
One of the easiest solutions is to install and use what’s known as a virtual private network. It’s software that adds a layer between your computer and the rest of the Internet that significantly improves the privacy of all your interactions, whether it’s checking your bank statement or viewing medical information at WebMD or the CDC. They’re also typically quite easy to use: a click or two and it’s running, protecting you until you disable it.
There are dozens of really good VPN solutions out there too, many of which I’ve written about, but this time I’m going to focus on the popular solution Surfshark. Like all safe VPNs, it costs a few dollars per month, but isn’t it worth about $0.15/day to ensure your online interactions are private? Better yet, your one account will let you utilize Surfshark for online data privacy across all of your devices, whether you have a Windows PC and an iPhone or a MacBook Air, iPad, and iPhone. Install their app, set it up with your account, and you can ensure all your Internet interaction is safe from anywhere.
HOW TO USE SURFSHARK ON YOUR COMPUTER
Let’s have a look at the Mac version of Surfshark for a demo! It’s easy to install through the App Store:
Click on “GET”, then “INSTALL” when shown, and after a moment or two, it’s installed! You’ll have to set up the subscription plan you prefer, but notice that there’s a free 7-day trial so you can use that to give it a whirl if you want, then decide either to keep it for about $4/mo or cancel.
Once installed and configured, the program has both a window and a new icon on the menubar. The window looks like this:
Lots of options down the left side, but all you really need to worry about is the aqua “Quick-connect“. Click on it, then close the window entirely by clicking on the red Mac control button on the top left edge. Has it quit? No! It’s still running on the menubar:
It’s the leftmost icon, the stylized “S” shield. Click on that icon and a menu shows up. Choose “Disconnect” and you can see the difference between the Surfshark VPN icon when you’re connected and disconnected:
See how it’s a hollow icon, not filled in and black? That’s your clue that you are not being protected by Surfshark VPN at that moment. Easy to remedy, though: Choose “Quick connect” from the menubar and you’ll be safe and have your Internet interactions private again.
WHY AREN’T YOU USING A VPN?
That’s really the point: it’s easy to work with modern VPN services on your PC, Mac, tablet, even your smartphone, so why are you still using open, public wifi networks without protecting your data interaction and communications? You don’t have to be doing anything nefarious to find this service valuable too, because the purpose of a VPN is to protect us from those nefarious people who might just have a data tracker running on the public network you’re using at this very moment. You’d never know until scammers seem to know a whole lot about you or someone’s intercepted your account credentials and your account has inexplicable transactions showing up.
Be smart, be safe. Get yourself a VPN like Surfshark, install it on all your primary devices, and use the darn thing. You’ll thank me when you’re the one person in your community who doesn’t have a sad tale to share of stolen data, hacked accounts, and malicious software being installed.
Pro Tip: I’ve been writing about online security for years. Please check out my Computer help pages for lots of tutorials.