What is a VPN and Should You Use One?

January 6, 2020

People are more aware than ever of the risks associated with public Wi-Fi networks when they use their laptops, phones, tablets, and other devices to access the Internet. Those risks are real and substantial, and without proper precautions, someone, somewhere very well might be monitoring your activity and data. One form of protection is a virtual private network (VPN), which can help provide security and privacy for your online activity everywhere.

How VPNs Work

The primary function of a VPN is acting as an intermediary between your computers and devices and the websites that you visit. Your PC or device connects to a remote computer that can be located anywhere in the world. The remote computer is the VPN “server,” which is a computer dedicated to handling traffic between remote computers.

Your PC communicates to websites you visit by passing through the VPN server each way. As a result, any outsider to your communication will observe your computer as being at the physical location of the VPN server and not your actual location. The traffic coming away from the VPN server is encrypted and tracks back to the IP address of the VPN server. Typically the only actors who will know that you are using a VPN server are you, the VPN, and some of the websites you communicate with over the VPN.

If you access the Internet through public Wi-Fi and use a VPN, hackers will have a tough time accessing your login data or sending your PC to fake websites to steal your information or gain access to your accounts. Your Internet service provider (ISP) or any hacker will have great difficulty learning what sites you visit over a VPN at any time.

The public Wi-Fi example highlights the value of VPN security. Many times we connect to a public network without a second thought. Consider, however, the places where hackers anticipate people are using networks while traveling, like airports, hotels, coffee shops, and restaurants. Bad actors choose these sorts of places to target transient users or to even set up entirely fake networks to entice users to log on, thus presenting easy access to their financial and private information.

Just because a network is displayed as “coffeehouse_freecustomerwifi” or with a brand name in the title does not mean that it is legitimate. Using a VPN is a way to defeat these types of attacks.

Who Needs a VPN?

Computer and Phone Connected to a VPN

As described above, VPNs provide security when you are accessing the Internet over a public Wi-Fi network. Even password-protected public networks benefit from the added layer of protection a VPN offers. Typical WPA2 passwords used by secured public networks provide a far lower level of security than a VPN.

When you are traveling outside of the United States, many sites that you usually visit might not be accessible because of the IP address of the network you use in a foreign country. Using a VPN based in the U.S. will allow you to appear to sites you visit as if you are currently inside the U.S. If you want to use a streaming service that you subscribe to, for example, you may be blocked from your account if logging in from a foreign IP address.

Business travelers often use VPNs to access their company networks and local resources without exposing private and local resources to the Internet. Travelers can also set up private VPNs to access a home local area network (LAN) securely while away from home.

Many more companies are beginning to require their remote workers to use a VPN when accessing company servers or resources. Remote or traveling workers can use a VPN to operate as if they were inside a company’s physical location while remaining secure.

Residents of some countries with restrictive governments that limit Internet access have used VPNs to access restricted sites and content. Many of the restrictive governments have taken harsh measures against citizens who use VPNs to circumvent Internet censorship. As always, technology and regulators are in a constant struggle over the free movement of information.

Many U.S. residents use VPNs just to obtain simple privacy from their ISP in addition to greater security from hackers. Typically, an ISP will only see a single connection to a secure VPN, and all other traffic is encrypted through the VPN server.

Using VPNs On Multiple Devices

You are likely to have several devices that could benefit from connecting to the Internet through a VPN. The most challenging aspect of managing multiple connections is addressing inconsistent connection requirements. This issue is identified by examining the capabilities of an individual VPN.

Most VPN network clients work smoothly between Windows and macOS, but that has to be verified. Other operating systems may have different requirements for connection or may simply be incompatible. Additionally, you should check to see if a VPN has suitable Android and Apple apps for connecting your mobile devices.

Limitations Of VPNs

VPNs can protect you from data collection by your ISP but are not effective against data collection by websites you use. When you shop with a retailer or use social media on the Internet, your information is associated with your account on that site and not your IP address or local connection. Also, every VPN is different, and some VPNs collect and sell data just like ISPs do. It is worth the effort to investigate different VPNs, and to not always just settle for a free option without question.

Some websites, and especially streaming services and financial companies, actively attempt to block all traffic identified as coming from a VPN server.

Speed is also a concern with many VPNs. VPNs usually involve increased ping time, or latency, because of the additional time and distance involved in using a remote server. This is another area where each VPN can differ significantly, and some research is probably necessary.

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