I always feel like a “stranger danger” alarmist when I say this, but… it’s not very safe to use WiFi that you don’t know much about. There’s a bit to unpack here, but the main thing is that hijacking WiFi is one of the Bad Guy Club’s favored ways to do their dastardly deeds. However, there is a heroic best friend that will save the day pretty much every time. Its name is “VPN.”
Restricting your WiFi use can be a problem when you travel and still want to work with clients via telemental health. One great solution is to bring your own cellular hotspot, but even that may be too slow or may not have a strong connection, or enough data. In such cases, a VPN may be the best way to achieve your goal of quality teletherapy connections while on the road.
Why the WiFi Worries?
Popular ideas around digital hygiene are pretty loosey-goosey. That’s not to say that public WiFi is Always a Bad Thing. It isn’t. But we have to balance the real world risks against the importance of the treasure we carry via our digital devices (i.e. our clients’ privacy, our practice’s legal safety, etc.)
When you connect to WiFi, it’s like getting in a pool with everyone else who’s using the same WiFi. And just like a pool, the health and safety of such an action depends on a lot of factors that might be outside your control. So we like to be careful of such “intermingling” when your clients’ privacy, and your own legal-ethical liability, is on the line.
To be clear: I’m not all that worried about bad guys snooping on the information you send send and receive while using someone else’s WiFi. Pretty much any online service you use to handle client info will create a secured connection with you. WiFi-crashing bad guys are pretty unlikely to be able to penetrate that. What I’m worried about is things like computer viruses and, on occasion, device cloning. These are Always a Bad Thing. So we try hard to avoid them.
How Does a VPN Help?
“VPN” stands for “Virtual Private Network.” That doesn’t really tell you anything useful about it, though.
The useful thing to know about VPNs is that a properly configured one will block out pretty much anyone (or anything) in the WiFi pool from approaching your device.
VPNs have two pieces: 1) the VPN software on your computer/smartphone/tablet/whatever, and 2) the VPN server, which is located in a data center somewhere. Both things are provided by a company that sells you a subscription to their VPN services. These services are usually pretty inexpensive. At PCT, we tend to like NordVPN and TunnelBear. But there are a ton of good ones out there. From a HIPAA perspective: a basic VPN service is a conduit, and so you generally shouldn’t need a HIPAA Business Associate Agreement with your VPN provider.
The VPN software on your computer/smartphone/tablet/whatever creates a kind of tunnel (for lack of a better word) to the VPN server. The software works hard to ensure that nothing can interact with your device besides the VPN server itself.
That generally does the job of keeping WiFi sharks at bay. And because it does so, the VPN makes it much, much less risky to jump in the WiFi pool at your hotel, Airbnb, or what-have-you.
What’s the Catch?
There are some interesting side effects to using a VPN:
- When you connect to websites through a VPN, you will appear to be located wherever your VPN server is located. So if your VPN server is in a data center in Stockholm, you will look to the websites you visit like you are sitting in Stockholm. This makes for all kinds of interesting side-effects, which are better left to a different article.
- If you are using any software that doesn’t know how to interact with your VPN connection, it won’t be able to connect to the Internet. This is rarely a problem these days. But if you still love using programs like AOL Instant Messenger, it probably won’t work while your VPN is turned on.
- VPNs don’t make your Internet connection faster. They have a small potential to slow it down. They usually don’t slow it down all that much, tho.
If you want to be able to perform quality telemental health sessions while on the road, I still recommend you acquire and use a cellular hotspot. I recommend that because the hotspot connection is all yours, in your control, and it may provide a better connection than public WiFi such as that at hotels. When the hotspot fails, tho, and you gotta use the WiFi, a VPN is your friend.