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VPNs and browsers — staying secure while online

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In business, we’ve used Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) for years. But I’m now seeing recommendations  that consumers VPN software to make your Internet connections more private so sites can’t snoop on your surfing and other communications. As someone who runs a website that uses IP address reputation as a guide to know who is and is not reputable on my site, using a VPN often assigns you an IP address that’s less than stellar. As a result, if you attempt to access sites that check for reputation, such as your bank, you may find yourself blocked.

I’m not against the concept of consumer-based VPN software, but I’m not convinced it’s the security panacea many think it is. Users think it’s keeping sites from tracking them, or keeping them safe when surfing on coffee shop Wi-Fi. They think it keeps prying eyes from reviewing our web traffic. But all VPN software is not created equal. I recently read new research from Consumer Reports that tested various VPN platforms; I was surprised to find that the top VPN providers included vendors I’ve not even heard of.

As the publication points out in the article and related white paper, ultimately you decide who or what you trust while online. Do you trust your ISP or a VPN vendor to watch what you connect to? If you don’t trust your ISP, you might want to change to a different ISP, one that has a better reputation. Also consider that nearly all of the websites we visit now support https:// and thus, the transmission to that site is protected by an SSL certificate and can’t be intercepted if you go online using public WI-Fi. As pointed out a while back in Wired, concerns about the use of public Wi-Fi are now lessened as we’ve moved to an always-https:// world.

One security suggestion I have is to use different browsers based on what you are doing online. Use one for more sensitive tasks such as online banking, and another browser for generic surfing. As Consumer Reports notes, instead of focusing on a VPN, consider “using a password manager, setting up multifactor authentication, enabling HTTPS-only mode on your web browser, and blocking ads or trackers with a tool like Privacy Badger or uBlock Origin.”

Microsoft is in the early stages of beta testing a setting in its Edge browser that will proactively protect against zero-day attacks. Given the increasing number of zero-days in Chrome, which Edge is built on, this is a wise move by Microsoft. Included in version 98.0.1108.23 released on Jan. 14, the zero-day protection, as Microsoft notes, can “enhance your security on the web.

“[It’s] a browsing mode in Microsoft Edge where the security of your browser takes priority, giving you an extra layer of protection when browsing the web. Administrators can apply the following Group Policies to end-user desktops (Windows, macOS, and Linux) to help protect against zero days. These policies also make [sure] that important sites and line of business applications continue to work as expected. This feature is a huge step forward because it lets us mitigate unforeseen active zero days (based on historical trends). When turned on, this feature brings Hardware-enforced Stack Protection, Arbitrary Code Guard (ACG), and Content Flow Guard (CFG) as supporting security mitigations to increase users’ security on the web.”

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