My Quixotic Quest for Digital Security

It’s no secret the internet has gotten a lot scarier in recent years. When crime in your area goes up noticeably, it’s rational to invest in a new security system. So why not do the same with our digital lives? This impulse began my attempts at hardening my digital security.

The first step I took back in 2018 was to transition away from Gmail toward a private, end-to-end encrypted email solution at Protonmail. I also decided to buy their bundled VPN service and began using it constantly on all of my devices. The ProtonVPN app is decent enough 99% of the time, but it has a lot of problems, mainly when it has to reconnect. This is an especially salient problem for mobile devices, which are constantly connecting and unconnecting to different WiFi networks or falling back to 4G as you move them around. But even for home WiFi connections, the ProtonVPN app is just not that great, even though some major stability improvements have been made in the last few years like the ‘kill switch’ feature that terminates your connection if the VPN disconnects – which is unfortunately common.

This led me to seek out a custom firewall for my home network that could route all my home network traffic through the VPN. I landed on pfSense, a FreeBSD based OS for firewalls. It purports to offer “enterprise”-grade security. Now the question of what to run it on. A blog I follow recommended a little firewall device from Protectli would be more than sufficient for a home network.

I picked out my Protectli device for about $300 and began setting it up. I managed to get pfSense installed and seeing some packets come through the firewall. I then installed an OpenVPN client with my ProtonVPN credentials and verified everything was getting routed through the VPN tunnel. Looking good so far! I then went out and bought a new WiFi router to put behind the firewall (replacing my ISPs router, lord knows what what thing’s running) and voilá – I now had my own secured home network with no need to run the ProtonVPN app on my device. Everything behind that network would be VPN’d to another IP, and the WiFi router itself was protected by pfSense running on the firewall.

All was well and good until I had to restart the firewall. I was moving some equipment around my living room and had to unplug it. When I started it up again, I couldn’t get it to route traffic through the firewall, even after making a fresh pfSense install!

Right now I’m stuck trying to figure out this issue. I don’t know if it’s a hardware failure or some issue with how I’ve got it setup. The Protectli guys have been nice in communicating via email to see if we can figure out the problem. For now I’m going to have to keep the dream alive in my heart.