TechLinks: VPNs – What they are and why court reporters should use them

A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is one of those acronyms bandied about often enough that you really want to know what it is, especially in this era when we keep so much information on our computers and there is the possibility that someone might try to hack into it. The NCRA Technology Committee decided to break down this topic so that you know the basics and can make good decisions about what to use and when.

What is a Virtual Private Network (VPN)?

A VPN is an encrypted connection over the internet from a device (such as a computer, printer, tablet, or smartphone) to a network. Encrypting the connection lets those on the network send and share sensitive data safely. Also, the VPN prevents unauthorized people from getting into the network. Many companies now use VPN technology in their workplaces both on-site and for remote workers.

The website How-to Geek states: “When you connect your computer (or another device, such as a smartphone or tablet) to a VPN, the computer acts as if it’s on the same local network as the VPN. All your network traffic is sent over a secure connection to the VPN. Because your computer behaves as if it’s on the network, this allows you to securely access local network resources even when you’re on the other side of the world. You’ll also be able to use the internet as if you were present at the VPN’s location, which has some benefits if you’re using public WiFi or want to access geo-blocked websites.”

Where might I run across a VPN?

Official court reporters and those who work in courthouses might be asked to use the court’s VPN to access files or upload materials. Firm owners might establish a VPN within their own offices, and freelancers are likely to come across VPNs when they are reporting in a client’s law office.

Why do I want to use it?

“The VPN keeps your computer ‘hidden,’ so you don’t have to worry about getting hacked into or tracked by sites you may visit,” says Technology Committee Chair Lynette Mueller, FAPR, RDR, CRR, a freelance court reporter from Memphis, Tenn. “It’s like wearing an invisibility cloak!”

Technology Committee member Lisa Knight, FAPR, RDR, CRR, a freelance court reporter and agency owner from Littleton, Colo., says she uses VPNs “to keep my internet usage private and secure — to protect my online privacy.”  She continues by saying that people should use a VPN “anytime you are jumping onto another WiFi network that is not your own or when you want to surf the web without being tracked.”

Karen Teig, RPR, CRR, CMRS, a freelance court reporter from Urbandale, Iowa, another committee member, said: “I’m embarrassed to admit that, while working on transcripts — in, yes, a coffee shop — there have been times when I’ve jumped on a free public WiFi. I tell myself I’ll just jump on quickly, find out what I need, and get off; but then that happens several times while there. That may be all the time a hacker needs. After researching for this article, never again!”

Teig noted as part of her research a May 25, 2018, Consumer Reports article, “What you need to know about cyber safety while traveling.” The article states: “Never use WiFi that isn’t secured with a password. It could be a fake hotspot set up by cybercriminals. And even legitimate WiFi, such as the free networks at airports, can be dangerous if it’s unsecured, because hackers can log on to it just as easily as you can.”

What else do I need to know?

“VPNs can cause a decrease in connection speed,” says Mueller. “But that small drawback is still worth using one. Server load is also a common issue when you are connected to a VPN service.” While speed can be a consideration, you can shop around for VPN services and see what they offer. The additional resources section at the bottom lists several articles that go through the services available. Also, check your computer’s speed at SpeedTest.net.

Knight says: “I always disable the VPN when writing realtime. If you are using cables, the VPN will not affect anything; but if you are writing realtime via LAN/WAN, it definitely will affect it!”

Additional Resources

Here are a few of the links compiled by the Technology Committee in creating this article

The Best VPN

The Best VPN Service

The best VPN service in 2018

The Best VPN Services

The Best VPN Services of 2018

Best VPN services of 2018: Reviews and buying advice

Does VPN decrease Internet speed? Let’s test it

Does VPN Slow Down Internet?

How—and why—you should use a VPN any time you hop on the internet

How to Choose a VPN for Digital Privacy and Security

How to choose the best VPN service for your needs

HTG explains what is a VPN

7 most interesting uses of a VPN

Speedtest.net

VPN explained: How Does It Work? Why Would You Use It?

VPN Speed Tips: Don’t Slow Down Your Internet!

What Is a Virtual Private Network (VPN)?

What Is a VPN? – Virtual Private Network

What You Need to Know About Cyber Safety While Traveling

Why You Need a VPN—and How to Choose the Right One

Thank you to the following NCRA Technology Committee members for contributing to this article: Lynette L. Mueller,  FAPR, RDR, CRR, chair; Nancy L. Bistany, RPR; Kim Greiner, RDR, CRR, CRC; Lisa A. Knight, FAPR, RDR, CRR; Karen Teig, RPR, CRR, CMRS; and Kelli Ann Willis, RPR, CRR.

Personal computing: VPNs: When sniffing your data is rude

As with much in life, much about security on the Internet depends on how much risk you’re willing to take, if you know. If you don’t know, much depends on how lucky you are.

Should you sit back and take your chances? “Sniffers” can make this risky, but a “virtual private network,” or VPN, service can put the odds back in your favor.

With Internet security in general, the

idea is to prevent hackers from finding ways into your computer, where they can capture your data, access your bank account or credit card, or take over your computer and use it to send out spam or take over the computers of others.

Many procedures are set up to protect you by default. Today’s computer operating systems come protected with their own firewall and antivirus software, though as usual better software can be had elsewhere through third-party vendors such as Symantec and Trend Micro.

Today’s best websites are protected through “Secure Sockets Layer,” or SSL, which encrypts information to or from the site and your computer or other device. Sites protected this way have Internet addresses beginning with “https” instead of “http.”

Passwords are required for many sites, and you can further your own protection by picking difficult-to-crack passwords that consist of a combination of at least eight letters, numbers, and special characters, with 10 or 12 being even better.

Banking and other websites holding sensitive data of yours typically require or give you the choice of two-factor authentication, such as asking you for the answers to selected questions you’ve previously given or texting to your cell phone a second temporary code or password when you try to log in.

Making sure you keep your operating system and software updated is also important in preventing hackers from finding cracks that let them find their way into your system.

In the office or at home, if you’re using a router, make sure it’s secured. You should have had to type in a security key, a type of password, to access it initially. The security key is often written on the outside of the router.

When you’re on the road, you should take special precautions. The free or lowcost Wi-Fi provided by many hotels, airports, libraries, bookstores, and coffee shops can be a great convenience. But not all such Wi-Fi providers provide a secure connection.

Secure connections require you to type in a security key or password provided to you by the facility. The best Wi-Fi security today is WPA2, with the earlier WPA a step behind. WEP is even less secure. And many facilities providing free Wi-Fi provide only unsecured connections.

The problem is packet analyzers or sniffers. This software serves legitimate purposes such as letting a company analyze its network traffic to best use its bandwidth or to monitor intrusion attempts. But the same software can be used by a would-be intruder sitting two seats down from you in the coffee shop. Such programs include Firesheep and Reaver.

At a Barnes & Noble bookstore once, I thought the connection was secure. But someone had captured my email address, password, and the email addresses of people I emailed. The next day my email recipients got an email impersonating me and making me sound foolish, a sophomoric joke probably by someone around the age of a college sophomore. It could have been worse.

Now I use a VPN service. Three highly recommended VPN services, getting good reviews in the computer press and anecdotally from fellow users, are Hotspot Shield (www.anchorfree.com), WiTopia (www. witopia.net), and Private WiFi (www. privatewifi.com).

In some cases a free, limited VPN version exists. When you’re protecting yourself in this way, it probably makes sense if possible to spring for the beefed-up pay version. You simply download and install the software before you use a public Wi-Fi hotspot. You can keep the software running all the time, or you can disable it temporarily when you’re back to using a secure business or home connection.

Other benefits of VPNs are anonymous browsing and access to content in foreign countries that may be be restricted to U.S. users.

VPNs use authentication and encryption to provide virtual private tunnels for your data through the public Internet. In some cases, with VPN vendors that have lots of servers, your Internet speeds actually increase. In other cases speeds can slow down slightly or remain about the same.

What it comes down to is: How sensitive is your data? How much risk are you willing to take with it?