OSB Professional Liability Fund

Remote Access for Lawyers: Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) and Virtual Private Network (VPN)

lighthouse
May 31, 2019
by Hong Dao

As lawyers embrace the trend to work offsite, remote access becomes an important tool. Remote access refers to the ability of one computer to remotely access information on another computer or network. This functionality lets lawyers access their applications, folders, and files on their work computer while working from home or somewhere offsite. Bigger law firms usually have their IT department set up remote access for their employees. Small firms and solo attorneys are typically on their own when it comes to remote access.
There are different ways to set up remote access, and this blog post will cover two main options: (1) Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) and (2) Virtual Private Network (VPN). Explore both options and choose one that offers the maximum security to protect client or other kinds of information.

Remote Desktop Protocol  

Remote Desktop Protocol, also referred to as screen sharing, is a method that allows users to connect to another computer and use it as if they were sitting in front of that computer. This can be implemented using the native application in most computers’ operating systems or using third-party remote desktop software applications.

Windows Remote Desktop

Microsoft originally developed Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to maintain and troubleshoot their servers. RDP has since been made available on all Windows computers to allow users remote access to another computer on your local network or over the Internet. But only computers running on the Professional, Enterprise, or Ultimate editions of Windows have what is called an RDP server that allows any computer to connect to that computer. Computers with the Home edition of Windows do not have an RDP server. This means that other computers cannot connect to it, but it can connect to a Pro (and above) edition.

Instructions for setting up remote desktop for computers in your local network can be found at the Microsoft website here for Windows 7 (which Microsoft will no longer support in January 14, 2020) and here for Windows 10.

Setting up remote desktop to a computer outside your network can be complicated. You will need technical assistance with setting up, configuring, possibly installing parts, and performing other steps if you are not tech-savvy. Have an IT person help you if this is what you want to do.

Mac Screen Sharing

Mac computers also have built-in remote desktop capability. Instructions to set up screen sharing are available at the Apple website here. Apple also has an advanced remote desktop solution suitable for institutional use for $79.99 called Apple Remote Desktop.

Chrome Remote Desktop

Chrome users can install the Chrome Remote Desktop extension on their PC or Mac computer for remote desktop. Instructions on how to do this are available here.

Security Concern

When remote desktop connection is made over the public Internet, it exposes your data to potential attacks because the transfer of data between the remote computer and your home computer is not secure. The least you need to do is have a strong password for your account, use two-factor authentication, and take other security measures.

Lawyers may consider using third-party RDP software or a VPN to secure your connection and Internet traffic.

Third-Party RDP Software

Third-party remote desktop software applications let you connect with another computer with the added benefit of security and encryption. All remote connections and data transferred during the session are encrypted using industry standard encryption. This is important for lawyers working on client files from afar and needing to maintain the confidentially of their client data. Some popular programs include LogMeIn, GoToMyPC, and RemotePC.

All these programs have easy installation, mobile access, and many useful features not offered by the native programs. Some of the programs offer basic free plans. Lawyers should consider upgrading to the paid versions.

Virtual Private Network

You can also establish remote desktop using a VPN or Virtual Private Network. A VPN creates a virtual secure tunnel between your computer and a remote network via a VPN server. This server connects users to the Internet and imposes various security protocols. Your Internet traffic is then routed through that encrypted tunnel, and nobody can see through the tunnel to view or steal your data. It also provides anonymity and privacy. A VPN allows you to be anonymous while using the Internet because it hides your IP address (which identifies you and your location), so your data can’t be traced back to you. It is used to thwart Internet surveillance and online tracking by your browser, your Internet service provider (ISP), or others.

Let’s demonstrate the value of a VPN in the context of public Wi-Fi. Places like coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, and airports offer free public Wi-Fi. The open nature of a public Wi-Fi network allows other people on that network to see what you’re doing online and capture your passwords, banking information, credit card number, and other information about you or your clients. A VPN encrypts your data transferred over that unsecured network to ensure no one can intercept it.

Due to the security and privacy offered by a VPN, it’s a good idea to use the secure tunnel to access remote desktop. Popular VPN providers include NordVPNTunnel Bear, OpenVPN, and ExpressVPN. After registering and paying for service, users download and install the program to their computer. Then users launch the VPN application and access their remote desktop via the native RDP applications discussed above.

Whatever program you use, keep in mind one important difference between RDP and VPN. RPD allows access and control to a specific remote computer and all the resources on that computer. A VPN, on the other hand, allows access to a remote network and the resources shared on that network, and it provides anonymity and privacy, which RDP does not.  RDP has security risks that can be reduced by using a third-party RDP software application or a VPN to encrypt data.

If all this information sounds too technical, you’re better off hiring an IT person to help you set up remote desktop or determine which remote access options will work for you.