We all use public WiFi. Coffee shops, hotels, public spaces, even the New York subway system offer easy and free WiFi connections that allow us to stay connected to the Internet while away from the office. The vast majority of these public WiFi networks are insecure, however, meaning that an unknown third party using easily-available tools can snoop on our conversations with relative ease. And while many email providers and some websites will secure (that is, encrypt) your communications for you (look for the "https" at the top of your browser), that doesn't cover everything you're typically doing on the Internet.
Enter the Virtual Private Network, or VPN.
A VPN is a secure, encrypted connection between your computer and the VPN provider's server, which can be located anywhere but most certainly is not located on the laptop of that sketchy-looking guy camped out two tables over. It protects all of your communications with the Internet, making it much more difficult for nefarious snoopers like Mr. Sketchy to see what you're up to while, for example, you're searching for prior art or doing legal research at your local Peets (alright, it's probably a Starbucks but I've always liked Peet's).
Using a VPN requires subscribing to a VPN service. I use VPNLand, because the BoingBoing store offered a good deal ($24.99) on a lifetime subscription and it seemed to have good reviews. There are many, many other providers, so do your homework and look for one with favorable reviews. Once you sign up, you'll download a VPN app that you access after you've made your insecure WiFi connection. VPN apps are also available for smartphones, but I do most of my heavy lifting on my laptop, so that was not important to me.
With my VPNLand app installed, I connect to the Internet, open it up, select my encryption level, and then select my server location. For most work, any encryption level will do and server location isn't all that important; I typically select a server located in New Jersey, simply because of a probably-naive belief that a shorter connection might mean marginally faster service. I click connect, and in a matter of less than a minute my Internet connection is securely routed through a VPNLand server in the Garden State.
Of course, you can geek out with a VPN - select an encryption protocol that is more secure than another, pick a server located in another country - but for the vast majority of us, any type of encryption and any server location is going to be good enough. There are many benefits of a VPN that go beyond the scope of this post. Three worth briefly noting here: (1) If you're traveling in a country that restricts Internet access, you can select a server located in a more open jurisdiction; (2) many countries block Skype, and a VPN will help you get around that, and (3) If you are outside of the US and can't access a particular site (Netflix, for example) because you are not in the US, you can use a US-based server to connect. Finally, for the small subset of us who have clients with particularly good reasons for secure communications (international human rights, for example), a VPN connection might be something you want to use even when working from a more secure office setting.
For lawyers working on client matters, there is no excuse for not using a VPN. For anyone else interested in keeping their communications secure, it's a must.