Patrick Marshall answers your personal technology questions each week.
Q: How to choose a VPN to protect and keep it cost-effective? If my employer provides a VPN to work platforms for my personal devices, does it protect personal devices not associated with those logins? Is it cost-effective to buy a VPN router or just a VPN provider? Who is a trusted VPN provider? Why should I consider whether they keep logs? Any advice?
— Crista Chadwick
A: Once launched, a virtual private network (VPN) encrypts all of your internet traffic and routes all that traffic through the VPN service provider’s servers. A hacker who, say, taps into the public Wi-Fi at Starbucks might be able to see and record your internet activity but since it’s encrypted they’ll have a devil of a time making any sense of it. And since all your internet activity is routed through the VPN provider’s servers, the only information that website you visit will be able to glean is that your visit came from the VPN provider. They won’t know it was you.
And yes, if your employer provides VPN services for your devices, once launched on any device you’re good to go.
The key to selecting a VPN provider is trust. Basically, since all your internet traffic is going through your VPN service provider’s servers, once you launch the VPN your VPN provider is the only one who can track what sites you’ve visited.
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As for your question about VPN logs, if your provider keeps logs of your activity, those logs could potentially be hacked or turned over to government authorities in response to a search warrant. So, if that’s a concern to you, its best to select a VPN service provider that doesn’t maintain logs. But even then, of course, you’re taking their word for it. So it all comes back to trust.
So how do you pick who to trust? When I was looking for a VPN service I searched the internet and looked at comparisons of providers by the major computer sites. Is that a guarantee? No, but since I’m not engaged in any criminal or treasonous activities, I’m not really concerned about my VPN service keeping logs. I’m more interested in making sure that my internet activity isn’t being snooped on by a third-party while I’m sitting in Starbucks. (If I was engaged in criminal activity I’d be inclined to steer clear of the internet altogether.)
As for VPN routers, they are convenient if you want multiple devices in a location — such as your home — to use a VPN without having to install and launch software on each device. But VPN routers require a VPN service provider, so you’re not cutting any corners there. And if you want to use a VPN while you’re sitting in a coffee shop or traveling abroad, that VPN router won’t be of any help.
Q: An icon appeared mysteriously on my Windows Surface Pro a couple of days ago that shows a slider bar with an X at the bottom. It’s in the upper-left corner of the screen regardless of what program is running and it can’t be clicked, deleted, opened, moved, minimized, nothing. A hard shutdown doesn’t affect it. Do you know what it is, where it came from, how to get rid of it?
— Jackie Gardner
A: The image you sent is the sound volume-level indicator for whatever speaker you have connected to the computer. The “X” at the bottom indicates the sound is muted.
After researching the issue, I’ve found that some users have found that installing all recent Windows updates have cleared up the problem.
If you have the updates installed and still have the problem, try a two-button restart. (For other readers, this only applies to the Surface Pro.) To do so, hold down the Volume Up button then the Power button for 10 seconds. Release the buttons, then wait 15 seconds or longer before restarting the computer.
If the problem persists it’s likely that you have a hardware problem.