Wrap your traffic: Configure a VPN on Chromebooks

Google secures your data, and a VPN protects your network traffic. Learn how to configure VPN on a Chromebook to browse securely anywhere.

Chrome OS VPN

Your connection to Google Apps on your Chromebook is secure.

Look for the lock icon in the address bar: there should be a green lock to the left of the web address (in the omnibox). A green lock means that traffic between your computer and the site is encrypted. Most security-aware administrators configure Google Apps to require this SSL (secure sockets layer) connection.

Go to Google.com, Yahoo.com, or DuckDuckGo.com and you'll see the green lock. Traffic is secured.

Now, visit CNN.com, NYTimes.com, or WhiteHouse.gov. You won't see green locks. These sites chose not to establish a secure connection between your computer and their site (as of March 18, 2014). The lack of SSL for news sites and the White House makes sense, because you're not conveying sensitive information from your system to theirs.

The insecure connection means that your network traffic to and from these sites is not encrypted. A virtual private network (VPN) connection offers a partial solution to the problem.

VPN = secure connection

With a VPN, you establish a secure connection to a trusted computer, which then connects to sites. Your network traffic travels securely from your system to the VPN system, then to the website you're visiting.

A VPN guards your network traffic against local interception, such as a malicious Wi-Fi access point operator or an unknown ISP. A VPN protects traffic from your system to the VPN system; after that, your traffic is on the internet.

Your internet traffic typically appears to originate from the VPN location, rather than your own. Weather websites might offer a forecast for the VPN's location. Streaming services may or may not work because of location restrictions. When using a VPN, your location is less immediately identifiable.

Chromebook and VPN

Corporate Chromebook users might connect via VPN in an effort to comply with HIPAA or similar laws. A school system might use a VPN on student-provided Chromebooks to route traffic through school-provided firewalls and/or filters that guard against malicious sites. Business travelers' Chromebooks might use a VPN to provide protection when accessing the internet via untrusted Wi-Fi access points.

Chrome OS: Sample VPN setup

A VPN connection on Chrome OS displays as an additional network connection. You'll see four links of a chain with the Wi-Fi symbol when a VPN connection is enabled on your Chromebook ( Figure A).

Figure A

Figure A
Chrome OS displays your Wi-Fi and VPN connection status.

First, of course, you need to configure a system to which your Chromebook can connect. If you're in a large organization, you likely have equipment dedicated to this task. Smaller organizations and individuals might configure VPN on a router (e.g., the open-source DD-WRT firmware supports VPN), a server, or via a VPN service provider.

If you're setting up a VPN at your organization, boost your bandwidth. VPN connections often decrease internet speeds: the routing often slows traffic. Make sure your connection is fast enough that performance isn't an issue. If your VPN is slow, people may avoid it -- or figure out how to turn it off.

You'll need to know several settings for your VPN system. As of March 2014, Chrome OS supports three types of VPN connections, per Google's support page: "L2TP over IPsec with PSK; L2TP over IPsec with certificate-based authentication; and OpenVPN." Support for connections to these types of VPN networks is built in to Chrome OS. The connection settings will vary. (For this example, I purchased an account with PrivateInternetAccess.com. Then, I used the service to generate an L2TP username and password.)

Add a VPN connection

To create a new VPN connection on a Chromebook, follow these steps:

  1. Select the three-line menu in the upper right corner of Chrome, then choose Settings
  2. Select Add connection
  3. Choose Add private network... (Figure B)
    Figure B
    Figure B
  4. Fill in the network connection data. For example, I connected to my VPN provider by:
  • Adding a Server hostname: us-west.privateinternetaccess.com
  • Naming the service: us-west (this is a display name)
  • Selecting the L2TP/IPsec + pre-shared key option
  • Typing in the pre-shared key from my provider (e.g., "mysafety")
  • Filling in my generated L2TP username and password

I chose to save the identity and password. Then I clicked Connect ( Figure C). After a few seconds, the system connected.

Figure C

Figure C
Configure VPN connection details. Remember, Chrome supports three VPN connection types.

Follow these steps to configure a Chrome OS VPN connection to automatically connect:

  1. Select the three-line menu in the upper right corner of Chrome, then choose Settings
  2. Select the VPN setting you configured previously (click on it to open settings)
  3. Check the box to Automatically connect to this network, then Close

When you restart your Chromebook, the system will attempt to establish the VPN connection automatically ( Figure D).

Figure D

Figure D
You can configure Chrome's VPN connection to autoconnect.

VPN in daily use

A VPN connection typically increases security and decreases speed. For example, when connecting at a Starbucks over a Google-provided internet connection, I saw Speedtest results with ping times of 13 ms, 50 Mbps down and 11 Mbps up. Performance declined with the VPN enabled: ping times increased to 36 ms, and speeds decreased to 12 Mbps down and 8 Mbps up. The speed was sufficient for me.

A Chromebook with a VPN connection provides an extremely secure device: Google secures your data, and a VPN protects your network traffic.

Do you use VPN on your devices? What's your experience been with VPN on Chromebooks? Let us know in the discussion thread below.