VPN—Yet another 3-letter acronym you need to know

VPN (it stands for virtual private network) is a facility available to all Wayne State faculty and staff. It’s accessed via the website vpn.wayne.edu and  it helps keep your computer and your files safe when you’re on the road. It’s a special, secure kind of connection that you set up to Wayne’s networks from wherever you happen to be in the world.
Wayne State’s campus network is protected in various ways—firewalls, intrusion detection software and other technical thingammies. Consequently, it’s a relatively safe place to play. Chances are good that people aren’t rooting around in your computer (presuming you haven’t been visiting websites you shouldn’t, or downloading iffy attachments, but, this being National Cyber Security Awareness Month, I hardly need remind my readers of that), and you don’t have someone electronically looking over your shoulder while you type.

However, when you connect your laptop or similar device to a network outside of Wayne, you can’t be completely sure that your connection is safe. That’s why we have the VPN1. The VPN sets up a virtual tunnel from your computer into the Wayne State network and your computer then behaves as if it were on the Wayne State network. Furthermore, anything that requires that you be on that network will act as if you were. So if you need to connect to Banner, Cognos, or access a Library resource restricted to Wayne faculty and staff, you can do so wherever in the world you are.
What is a virtual tunnel? Every communication (mouse click, typed item, etc.) that leaves your computer when you’re on the VPN is encrypted. That means it’s turned into an unbreakable2 cipher that is unscrambled back at Wayne State.

To get started, go to the VPN website (vpn.wayne.edu) and log in. The screen will then look something like this:


VPN Opening Screen

From here you can access websites and file storage sites on the Wayne campus that are restricted to the Wayne network (for example, C&IT has a fileserver that can only be accessed in that way, and your department or college might have one too).
Much more useful, however, is the Network Connect button on the lower left (circled on the above screenshot). If you click the Start button (lower right) a program will begin to run on your computer, setting up a secure tunnel with the Wayne network. A small lock-shaped3 icon will appear on the lower right of your screen (if you’re a PC person)

or, if you use a Mac:

and you can now access Wayne resources wherever you are. That includes being in countries where internet usage is monitored or even restricted by the government. When I was in China in July I used it to access not only my Wayne State email, but also CNN, Facebook, and Google, all of which would otherwise have been blocked.
In general it’s a good idea to use the VPN whenever you are doing anything that might be risky if intercepted—not only reading your mail but logging on to your bank account or credit card site, since it encrypts all traffic, regardless of whether the other end is at Wayne or not.
Running the VPN ‘client’ (program) may cause some programs to behave somewhat oddly. For example, I use AOL’s Instant Messaging program, and it complains that I’m logged on in two places at once, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem–just log off in one of them.
When you are finished, right click on the little bug icon and select End Session and also go back to the web page for the VPN and click Sign Out.

For more instructions, visit http://kb.wayne.edu/index.php?action=article&id=166&relid=26 to see how to use the VPN on a Macintosh and http://kb.wayne.edu/index.php?action=article&id=167&relid=26 for its use on a PC.



1 For the technically minded among us, this is an SSL VPN. You can read the details on how it works here.

2 Well, actually it’s probably not completely unbreakable. If you have the resources of the National Security Agency or the Chinese or Russian equivalent you could probably break it, given enough time. But for the average citizen there’s probably little need to worry.

3 Until I wrote this blog I thought it was a picture of a bug, but when I inserted the above image, which is larger than it appears on the screen down in the bottom right corner, it turns out it’s a lock with things that look like antennae.

2 Replies to “VPN—Yet another 3-letter acronym you need to know”

  1. Geoff,

    As a long-time VPN user, I’m interested to know whether the use of the Wayne VPN has any bearing on questions such as those you’ve posted on before regarding privacy, FOIA, etc. If I send email from my home computer while connected to the Wayne VPN, since I am virtually connected through the Wayne network, is anything I do potentially subject to a FOIA request?

    – Steve Chrisomalis

    1. I am not a lawyer. However, I would doubt that the channel through which communications travels would affect it’s liability for discovery. Of course, University Counsel might have a different opinion, and, for the university, his/her opinion trumps mine at all times.

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