Virtual private networks offer some security protection, but they’re not a cure-all, Patrick Marshall writes. He also addresses some puzzling toolbar and taskbar behavior.
Q: I’ve heard that the only way to be secure on a public Wi-Fi network is to use a VPN — a virtual private network. Is that so? If so, what’s involved in setting one up?
— Sam MacKay, Seattle
A: There’s a lot to be said for using a VPN, and I use one myself. A primary benefit is that it keeps you anonymous on the internet. As for security, it’s a bit more complicated.
First, I’ll explain what a VPN is. A virtual private network simulates a private network on the public internet by creating an encrypted connection between the client and the VPN server. So if you are at a Starbucks and connect to your company’s VPN, your work will be very safe from prying eyes.
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A VPN service provides the same functionality for consumers. When you establish a connection to the internet, all your traffic is actually moving through the VPN service’s server, and websites will not know your actual IP address.
As for security, yes, traffic between you and the VPN service is encrypted. But traffic between the VPN server and the websites you visit is not. So potentially a hacker could tap into your traffic.
Still, so much data moves in and out of the servers that connecting it up to you would be like searching for a needle in a haystack, so there’s some protection in that.
Beware, though, that some secure sites, such as banking sites, may reject your attempts to log in through a VPN server. That’s because they may detect that you’re trying to log in from an unexpected location.
So should you connect to the bank over public Wi-Fi? Most bank services are conducted over secure connections so in principle your communication with the bank should be secure.
But hackers can trick users into logging in to spoofed “secure” sites. Yes, that’s unlikely. But my recommendation is not to do banking and other sensitive data transfers on public Wi-Fi.
Most VPN services also include other tools, such as ad blocking and protection from malicious websites, as well as the ability to get around some countries’ attempt to block certain websites.
As for what’s involved in setting up a VPN, it takes very little. Many VPN services offer a free version that has limited connect times, may be limited to a single device and may involve delays in making connections. Most subscriptions to VPN services are about $50 a year. Either way, the software is very easy to set up and use.
Q: On my laptop, I have Yahoo as my home page. It is listed under my Start button as Yahoo (2). Consequently, whenever I open my Yahoo from a toolbar, etc., it opens up to my Yahoo pages. I have looked to resolve the issue. Any ideas?
Second, on my desktop PC, I have the Google taskbar installed above the Yahoo home page. I use it for all of my Google searches. However, quite a while back I noticed that it does not save my search history. When I use the drop-down menu from the Google search box it is blank. It used to list all of the recently visited sites.
Any thoughts on how I may get the browsing history to show up in the Google search box drop-down menu?
— Ted Williams
A: If I understand your first question correctly, you’ve got a website pinned where you don’t want it. You should be able to right-click on the item and then select “unpin.”
As for your second question, if you’re not logged into any Google service, such as Gmail, Google won’t keep your search history. That will then just be up to your browser. If you log into a Google service, your history should be available through the Google search bar.