A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a security concept designed to allow remote users to connect to a particular local network to the internet via a secure tunnel. In simpler terms, a VPN is an encrypted connection between two (or more) remote computers.
The main two applications of this technology are either employee who are working remotely yet require access to their company’s network resources, or privacy-minded home users who wish to keep their web traffic protected from any prying eyes that may be watching. VPNs are very commonplace in today’s always-online world, and most (if not all) operating systems come with some VPN functionality built in. While there can sometimes be slight differences between distros and desktop environments, you will generally find VPN configuration options in the same place you configure the rest of your network settings. Keep in mind that you may experience a drop in network speeds while connected to your VPN, but such is the price for security.
What You’ll Need
The first thing you’ll need to configure and connect to a VPN is a computer on the other end of the tunnel to connect to, be it your company’s VPN server or a public VPN provider (although if you’re trying to connect to your company’s intranet, you should probably just let your company’s Sysadmin(s) handle it). A quick Google search will find many public VPN providers that will allow you to use their services for a nominal fee.
Finding the best provider is up to you, do your research, read reviews, and see what fits your budget. For anonymity purposes, you’ll want to find a provider that does not keep any logs of network traffic whatsoever (or at least, claims to not keep logs, unfortunately, you’ll probably just have to take their word for it). Depending on your location, it may even be a good idea to find a provider that operates outside of your country’s jurisdiction, in the event that your web traffic is subpoenaed for some reason. While this may not absolutely prevent a subpoena from being fulfilled, it may at least add some extra paperwork and processing time for the guys that want your information. And of course, if your chosen VPN provider truly does not log any network traffic anyway, then it won’t matter. But why make it easier for the powers that be, right?
Once you’ve figured out who or what you’re connecting to, then it’s time to actually configure the connection, assuming that your VPN service of choice doesn’t use some sort of proprietary software application (like Cisco’s AnyConnect, for example); in which case just follow the documentation from your VPN provider. However, for most situations, you can just use the built-in network management service that comes with your distro. For Ubuntu (Unity) and Linux Mint (Cinnamon), the popular NetworkManager is installed by default. I also went with NetworkManager for my GNOME Desktop running on my Arch Linux installation, simply because it was the most familiar to me.
According to Ubuntu’s official documentation, you may need to install an additional network-manager package to work with your particular VPN. However, most of the time, you can just click the network connections icon in the top right of the status bar, and on the drop-down menu you’ll see VPN Connections>Add a VPN connection. If this doesn’t work, you can also go to Settings>Network, and click the plus sign at the bottom left corner of the window to add a new network connection. Select VPN from the interface, and by default, you’ll likely only have the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) option available. If your VPN utilizes PPTP, you can now enter the connection info provided to you by your VPN such as Gateway, username/password, etc. If you’re not using PPTP, then you may have to search for additional software packages that support your particular connection protocol. Once all the necessary information has been configured, you can toggle your VPN connection on and off directly from the status bar.
On Linux Mint, the process is quite similar. Go to System Settings>Network, and you’ll see a Network Settings window that’s almost identical to Ubuntu. As with Ubuntu, click the plus sign to add a new network connection, select VPN from the list of connection types, and by default you’ll have the pre-installed choices of connecting via OpenVPN or the same PPTP connection that we saw in Ubuntu. Whichever your VPN provider’s documentation says to choose, select it and provide the required connection information given to you by your VPN provider. Once all the necessary information is configured, you should be all set. You can also toggle your VPN connection on and off like you would your Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connections.
If you’re using a different desktop environment or even a different distro altogether, it's best to first consult your distro’s documentation (especially if you’re an Arch Linux user like me), however the process will still be essentially the same: Find your network connections, add a VPN connection, select the needed protocol that your VPN connection will use, and supply the required configuration information. After that, you’ll be free to work and/or browse knowing that your connection is secure and private *. Just hope that your VPN provider is telling the truth and really isn’t logging your network activity.
* Disclaimer: It turns out that PPTP isn’t actually very secure, so it may be a good idea to pursue other VPN connection types if your VPN provides them
VPNs are a great security and privacy tool that aren’t too difficult to use. Just a few clicks and you’re connected and ready to browse to your heart’s content; just make sure you’re using a secure connection protocol). Technology is constantly progressing and changing, and in today’s world, it pays to be in the know about new technological advances, particularly when it comes to privacy and security. Do your research, read your distro’s documentation, and subscribe to LinuxandUbuntu for more articles, tutorials, and reviews!