Do you need a VPN to stay safe online? PAT PILCHER takes a look at Norton’s variant on the theme.
There’s been a lot written about VPNs lately. Sadly, most coverage seems to revolve around VPNs as a means of hiding nefarious online activities, many of which are on the greyer side of the law. The funny thing is that VPNs are also incredibly useful as a means of keeping personal and financial information out of the hands of unintended third parties.
Virtual private networks (VPNs) were originally intended as a means of providing encrypted end-to-end connections for corporate workers to securely access company data remotely when working offsite.
In non-geek speak, VPNs provide an encrypted conduit that allows users to securely send and receive data. Any data intercepted by third parties is encrypted so all that is seen is gibberish. This also has the rather handy effect of making the data of other users using non-encrypted connections a more appealing target.
This is more of an issue than many realise. Saving a few bucks on mobile data by using public Wi-Fi in a hotel, an airport or shopping mall might seem fiscally prudent, but there are some very real risks involved.
This was brought home to me recently when I downloaded and used Wireshark, a Wi-Fi network diagnostic utility that can scan Wi-Fi traffic. I was shocked to see just how easy it was to view the online activities of fellow hotel guests. A tonne of sensitive information was there to see, and all that was needed was a few freely available utilities and a bit of knowledge picked up via Googling. A less honest person could easily create mayhem.
Enter stage left, Symantec’s Wi-Fi Privacy. Available for a multitude of operating systems including Android, Windows, MacOS and IOS, Wi-Fi Privacy sits in the background and fires up If it detects that you’re using an unencrypted Wi-Fi connection. It redirects your data over a VPN, making it next to impossible for your online activities to be snooped on.
That said, there are VPNs and VPNs. Many say they’re free while others cost. Your mileage will vary hugely. As a rule of thumb, paid VPNs are usually faster than the free ones, and those that don’t cost often come with a catch, be it injecting adverts into your browsing or using your device as a hub to route other VPN traffic over (which security issues aside, can also blow mobile data allowances to bits). Many paid services also throttle data. Thankfully, none of these gotchas apply to Norton Wi-Fi Privacy.
So, do you need Wi-Fi Privacy? That most public Wi-Fi networks are not encrypted means others on the same network with the right know-how can eavesdrop on your web browsing to capture passwords, emails, and financial information sent and received while you’re connected.
In short, if you’re using public unencrypted Wi-Fi, installing a VPN like Norton Wi-Fi Privacy makes a lot of sense. It costs $49.95 a year, and can be installed on up to five different devices so all the tablets, smartphones and PCs you use can easily be secured.
If there is one trade-off I found, it was this: using Wi-Fi Privacy sometimes added a tiny delay into the mix. The additional latency was due to me connecting to one of the many Symantec VPN servers scattered around the world. The server was usually in Australia – annoyingly, there’s no New Zealand server. This wasn’t a show stopper (it was barely noticeable) and unlike a lot of free VPN products there were no discernible speed penalties.
That Norton Wi-Fi Privacy only activates and directs traffic over a VPN when using an unencrypted Wi-Fi connection, which also meant that for the bulk of my online activities, there was no speed/latency penalty at all.
So, at the end of the day, the big question is this: Is Norton Wi-Fi Privacy worth it? At $49.95 a year it is a godsend to people like me, who use a mobile device to do a lot of sensitive stuff such as banking/correspondence over public Wi-Fi. While you could just avoid public Wi-Fi and use your mobile data to access the internet, the annual subscription is probably going to be many times less costly.