What is a VPN?

VPN stands for virtual private network. It’s a service that helps ensure your connection to the internet — and what you do with it — is more private than it would normally be. VPN services protect you online in a number of ways, but the key goal is that they make you more anonymous when you’re traveling the world wide web.

Find out more about VPNs, how they work and whether you should be using one below.

How Has VPN Evolution Changed Remote Access?

Virtual private networks weren’t always readily available to individuals. They were originally designed for corporate use as a way to ensure offices and employees in disparate locations could share files and access information and networks in a secure manner.

VPNs literally began as a way to allow employees to access a business’ private network while outside of the physical parameters of that network. For example, someone could use a VPN to sign in from a home computer instead of the desktop in their office.

Over the last two to three decades, cybersecurity issues have risen in prominence. Hackers and cybercriminals are much more sophisticated, which means network security — including VPNs — have evolved to be more powerful, flexible and useful outside of the original intended purpose.

As with any technological evolution, the changes also made VPN more accessible and affordable to individuals. Today, you can use a VPN to sign in securely to your company’s network, but you can also use it to keep advertisers at bay and ensure no one is savvy to your television streaming or Amazon shopping habits.

How Does a VPN Work?

There are different types of VPNs, but in general they work by hiding and encrypting information about you as you interact with the internet.

  • Hiding you online. First, VPNs make you anonymous online by hiding your true IP address. An IP address is a string of characters that identifies users and sites online. You have an individual IP address that identifies your computer and internet sign-on. If that IP address isn’t masked, then hackers, governments, websites and marketers can see where you’ve been online and what you’ve been doing there. VPNs hide your IP address, masking it with other IP addresses that are different for every online interaction. That makes it harder (if not impossible) for organizations to track you online.
  • Encrypted data. VPNs offer high level encryption of all data you send online. That includes data about where you go online as well as what you upload and download. Without encryption, all this data is there for the viewing and taking. With encryption, hackers and other entities come up against a protective wall.

What Kinds of Devices Can Be Used With a VPN?

You can use VPN with almost any device that can be connected to the internet. That includes computers and laptops running any of the top operating systems, such as Windows, macOS and Linux. Remember that VPN is a service offered by a wide range of providers, and not all VPNs are exactly the same. Before you invest in the service, make sure your operating systems of choice are covered.

VPNs can also be installed on or used on mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, and gaming devices, smart televisions and other connected components. To use a VPN with certain smart devices, such as Google Home or Amazon Alexa, you may have to use a secondary hardware or service. Some of these devices don’t have built-in VPN support.

Can You Set Up VPN Access on Multiple Devices?

How many simultaneous connections a VPN supports depends on your service and how you’ve set up access requirements. If you’re investing in VPN to protect your home network and family, for example, you can find services that offer several simultaneous connections at once. That means someone could be streaming Netflix in the family room, another person doing homework on a laptop in the office and a third gaming on a mobile device, and all would still be protected by the virtual private network.

Obviously, VPN business needs range even wider. You may need the option for dozens or even hundreds of access points. You might also want added security, such as a way to track what each person connects with via the network or limit which devices an employee can have a vpn connection to the business network. Those are all options with various VPN products.

Why Do You Need a VPN?

Most people and businesses choose to use VPNs for two major reasons. First, it protects them, including their data and networks. Second, because it keeps them more anonymous online.

You Have Nothing to Hide, So Why Use a VPN?

But what if you have nothing to hide? You don’t care who knows you binge the Great British Bake Off every night or use your lunch hour to read up on how to grow the best peppers in the county. And if you’re using a business computer, could anyone really tie that activity to you anyway?

Even if you don’t have anything to hide, you may not want private and public organizations having as much information about your internet habits as they do. Companies collect an astounding amount of data, including:

  • When and in what location you access information and the internet
  • What websites you visit, how often and what you do while on the site
  • What links you click online and which social media profiles you follow
  • What you buy online and what you put in your shopping cart and never buy

These are just a few of the data points being gathered by advertisers, websites, the government and even criminals. Sometimes, the tracking is even more invasive. For example, some websites collect data about how long you stay on various aspects of the screen and draw conclusions about how you interact with the content there. AI is able to connect your habits and log-ins across various IP address, so even if you use a business computer, a home computer and a mobile device, your use might still be tracked to you.

What do organizations use this data for? Many use it for marketing. Have you ever visited a site on a specific topic — for example, engagement rings — and then realized that engagement ring advertisements have started following you around the internet? That’s the result of your behavioral data — what you looked at or searched for online — being tied to your IP address and used by marketers.

And it’s not even the one jewelry website that has this info now. Jewelry sites you never even visited can use data gathered by Google and other ad platforms to target you now.

A VPN gets rid of that capability and cuts down on ad targeting. Here are a few other reasons you might want VPN protection even if you have nothing to hide.

  • You may be confident in your own actions online, but you never know when or how information can be used against you. VPN cuts down on what organizations, including the government, know about you.
  • You aren’t the only one using your networks. Do you want every employee’s internet browsing history to be laid bare to investors or used in any future investigation of your business? Probably not.
  • Unknown organizations aren’t the only ones who can track you online. Other people can too, and you don’t always want your business partners or social circle knowing everything you do online.

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Should I Use VPN to Be Secure On the Internet?

It’s not just about privacy, though. You should also use VPN to be secure on the internet. In 2019 alone, cybercrimes led to $2 trillion in losses — and those were just the ones reported. In the United States, only around 10% of cybercrimes get reported, in part because many people and companies don’t realize they’ve been breached. Estimates are that by 2021, annual reported damages will break the $6 trillion mark.

External Hackers

These are cybercriminals that steal information about you, your business or your computer and use that for nefarious purposes. They might want to steal your identity or break into your business network to get more information. VPNs create barriers that make it much harder for hackers to do this, which can significantly reduce the risks of this type of cyberattack.

Consider this metaphor to understand how VPNs protect you against hackers. Imagine you want to send a note to someone, but you don’t want anyone to know what you said. If you write it down and have a person carry the note to the other party, there’s a significant risk it could be intercepted. And anyone who takes the note from the messenger (or manages to copy it while the messenger is carrying it) can read it.

Now, consider a second option. You write the note in a different language. You hand it to the messenger, who tears it up into small pieces and puts it in his pocket. The messenger brings it to another location, where the information is reassembled, translated to the right language and then given to the recipient. It would be much harder from someone to take the message from the messenger, much less make sense of it.

VPNs protect you against hackers by employing this same concept on a much larger and more technical scale.

Computer Viruses

VPNs alone can’t protect you from viruses or malware that are downloaded on your computer. In most cases, a VPN doesn’t manage how you use your devices — it simply protects you while you’re using them. So, if you choose to download a file that has malware attached, your device can be infected whether or not you’re using a VPN. For this reason, it’s a good idea to use additional measures, including virus scanning software.

That being said, a reputable VPN might help reduce the risks of some issues with downloads by protecting files in transit. That means hackers can “intercept” messages or data transmissions, which reduces the chance of receiving a tampered-with file or being rerouted without realizing it when surfing online.

Internal or At-Device Hacks

VPNs protect your connection, not your device. If someone steals your phone or laptop or infiltrates your office, a VPN doesn’t stop them from getting into your network.

That’s not to say you’re without protection. Again, VPNs should be used as part of an overall cybersecurity protocol that also includes strong password management and other access controls, such as biometrics and two-factor authentication. In a business environment, limiting physical access by function or need-to-know status with network security and even locked doors can also be important.

On Public Networks

Public Wi-Fi networks are available almost everywhere these days. Airports, hotels, restaurants and even some parks offer a Wi-Fi network you can use to get work done on the go or check your email or social profiles. The bad part about all this free Wi-Fi is that anyone else can access it, and you could be on the same network as a hacker. That puts you much closer to the risk.

When you use a VPN, you create a virtual private network for yourself even though you’re using a public Wi-Fi option. That creates a barrier between you and everyone else, adding extra protection for you and whatever business network you might be logging into.

What Are the Disadvantages of VPN?

As with any technical measure, VPNs do come with a few disadvantages. However, for most businesses and many individuals, the scale tips heavily in favor of the benefits, making VPNs a clear choice. When considering a VPN, here are some of the most common disadvantages you might need to factor in.

Service Blockades

Some websites and services block known or suspected VPN-based IP addresses. That means when you’re on a VPN, you may not be able to use those sites.

For individuals, Netflix is one of the most common examples. The streaming service blocks VPN access for many. However, some VPN companies are able to break through this blockade, so when you’re shopping for VPNs, consider which sites and services you want to be able to use on it.

For businesses, blockades might be an issue when related to partner and vendor services. Make sure the VPN you choose will work with intranet portals, cloud solutions, SaaS tools and any other vendor solutions you might rely on.

Note that there is a flipside to this disadvantage. Many sites restrict access by IP address. For example, some U.S. retail sites restrict access to people who have a U.S.-based IP address simply to cut down on unwanted traffic and customer requests that can’t be serviced. Sometimes, using a VPN allows you to access such sites even if you would otherwise be restricted because of IP address.

Inappropriate Feeling of Online Security

As shown above, VPNs aren’t a catch-all for every cybersecurity issue that exists. However, if you invest in a VPN and let your employees or family know, you might risk unwarranted feelings of security online. That could mean people engage in careless behavior, don’t protect their personal information as they should or download things without thinking, putting the network and data at risk despite the VPN.

Reduce the chance of this happening by ensuring everyone understands what a VPN does and does not do. In a corporate environment, that means regular training on cybersecurity for all employees.

Will a VPN Slow Down Your Internet Connection?

In general, VPN slows your internet connection down by around 5% as it works to encrypt and unencrypt information. For most users, that level of reduction would not be discernible without running a speed test. However, on older devices, stronger encryptions can create bigger slowdowns.

In rare cases, VPN use might speed up your connection. For example, an internet service provider can throttle bandwidth depending on what you’re doing. These ISPs have contracts that say they will prioritize certain types of connections and data over others, and if you’re doing something that they don’t deem critical or a priority, they might slow your connection down in favor of connections that are engaging in such activity.

But guess what they need to do all that? Your ISP address. If you’re using a VPN, the ISP doesn’t necessarily have all the information needed to make a throttle decision, which could help keep your speeds more consistent.

A Bad VPN Might Be Worse Than No VPN

Not all VPN service providers are high-quality or reputable, and investing in a free VPN or super cheap VPN service could leave you more exposed than no VPN at all based on their vpn protocols. One reason is that you might act as if you’re covered by VPN protection without being fully covered. That could result in you accessing financial account information, for example, during a time when hackers can easily see what you’re doing.

Another reason to be careful about which VPN solution you use is that the VPN provider does have access to all your information. It’s the one encrypting and sending it. And in an age where information is possibly the most valuable currency, irreputable providers have been known to sell data to third-parties.

The Final Word on VPNs

VPNs are an important tool for managing network and data security. They’re also affordable and accessible whether you’re a huge enterprise, a small business or an individual. Whether you are looking for some online privacy or need military-grade encryption, there is a VPN for you or your business.

Do your research to find a VPN solution that’s reputable and works for you, and remember to engage in other security measures to stay safe online.

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