Lately, ads have run for a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service to keep you safe from hackers, viruses, and identity theft. Let’s take a moment to identify what they are actually selling.

First off, there’s nothing new about a VPN, they’re just usually for business so the average person hasn’t heard of them. While a private network is self contained—no one can get to it unless they are in the building, logged on to the system—a virtual private network creates the same locked system in a way that allows people to log on remotely or includes multiple office locations. When it’s impossible to sit in the same room but you still need your data protected, even when it has to be viewed in California, Tennessee, Arizona, and Virginia, you establish a VPN.

In any protected network, virtual or otherwise, decisions are made as to what will be allowed for each level of user and individual usernames will be defined. After all, it’s not really private if anyone can sign on, and any good bouncer has a list of those who are allowed to join the party. There is physical hardware involved—the unfiltered Internet is wired to the firewall, and the users actually access the firewall, or rather the portion of the world that the firewall is programmed to allow through. You plug in or sign on, you can access your work files, and no one outside the network can get to them.

So back to the point—what are VPN services actually selling?

They’ve established a corporate-sized VPN, likely with all the bells and whistles to go with it. They are selling log-ins. If you pay them, they’ll add your username to their list, and you can now log in and view the world as filtered through their hardware, like you are an employee at their corporation except they don’t make you work. Because these are individual users who don’t need to see each other’s files, every user is set up with the most restrictive access—their own files only. That’s it. Piece of cake.

This is not a criticism. In fact, this is pretty cool, if they keep up with maintenance and such on their end. Corporations who stand to loose millions in revenue if their competitors access their content, particularly those with a very long employee roster, can afford to purchase equipment that the rest of us just can’t. We’ll save a project to an external drive and put it in a safe, but we can’t invest several hundred thousand dollars in a top-of-the-line system for that many users. This gives those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to such protections an option.

I read an article about a mechanic who retired wealthy at a young age because he designed a new air filter for cars—he put a handle on it. It was such a simple modification that he was doing it on his own, since creating a handle and installing the part still took less time than just doing the installation without the handle. An amazingly simple idea that probably made a dozen manufacturers facepalm with the universal regret of “why didn’t I think of that.”

Good for him—he’s the poster child for the American Dream. The fact that these VPN companies found a way to re-market a standard business practice is a little like that. Hat’s off to them—I wish I had thought of it. There’s nothing wrong with the service, it’s just a matter of figuring out if its right for you.

Please research any company before deciding, because there is a price-point that’s reasonable and anything beyond that would negate the cool-factor. If it’s actually less expensive to buy a smaller system that just covers you and yours than it is to use a VPN service, that would be ridiculous. Any VPN company is also only as good as their maintenance contract—not the one they offer you, the one that takes care of their servers. Just like any corporation, the network can go down if it’s not properly cared for, and it is possible for the users of a specific VPN company to be faced with a blinking cursor and a heartfelt apology form letter that doesn’t bring back your project. But if the price is right and the company takes care of business, this is an option for the “little guy” to have the protection available to Disney.

If you have a company size of you and sometimes your spouse when you get overwhelmed, it’s likely far less expensive to use a VPN service than to set up your own on such a small scale. If you work with people who don’t live with you and you have content that needs protecting, you should get all the information—an engineering estimate for the cost of establishing your own VPN that you can control, and all the product information on the VPN service for comparison.

There’s nothing more secure than remaining in control of your work, and anyone nearing the zero-point where it’s only a little less expensive to use a VPN service should consider that. If it’s a wash, financially speaking, buy your own. Then you can make sure your maintenance contract is up to date and your system has had it’s proverbial oil changes, and that’s real security.

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