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Today’s world is connected by the Internet. In an instant, businesses conduct transactions across the globe and people communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time. A huge portion of the world’s economy now relies on the World Wide Web. While these interconnections brought the world together, it comes with a cost: a loss of privacy. Enter the virtual private network (VPN).
So what is a VPN? Simply put, a VPN hides your information by sending it through an encrypted tunnel connected to a separate Internet network. However, there’s more to a VPN than meets the eye. Whether you’re a business owner or an individual, they provide peace of mind knowing your data remains secure.
If this sounds confusing, read further for a complete overview of virtual private networks. We cover what they are, how they work, and more.
What is a VPN?
A virtual private network (VPN) is a service that protects your personal data by routing your Internet connection to a remote server. When you use the Internet with a VPN, your data stays encrypted. This increases Internet privacy by making it virtually untraceable. It shields you from prying eyes and cybercriminals using the same WiFi connection as you.
For example, when visiting a coffee shop or airport, you likely connected to their free WiFi. Public WiFi is great for providing free Internet access. However, it comes at a cost, as anyone using the same public WiFi potentially has access to your personal data. This includes credit card numbers, business contacts, and your Social Security Number. This risk remains why one of our top WiFi security tips involves using a VPN when accessing public WiFi.
How does a VPN work?
Now let’s see how a VPN works. Your computer, smartphone, and tablet typically includes an Internet protocol (IP) address; identifying all of your online activity. When you log onto your computer you generally connect to your Internet service provider (ISP).
Your ISP provides access to the Web. When you visit any websites or online resources, they save your Internet traffic to their servers. This means your ISP potentially shares your browsing history to third parties like the government and advertisers.
How does a VPN handle your Internet activity? A VPN prevents your ISP from accessing your browsing history by creating a secure connection to another network.
A VPN provider creates a connection to its own IP address. When you connect to the Internet with a VPN turned on, you use the VPN server’s IP address, not your own. Your VPN provider likely has servers located thousands of miles away and all over the world. This means through a VPN connection, your Internet activity appears as if it’s located at one of these remote servers, not your own.
Along with hiding your search activity from your ISP, VPNs create an encrypted tunnel between your local network and the VPN provider’s remote servers. When using a public WiFi network, your encrypted data is now virtually impenetrable, leaving hackers and eavesdroppers with scrambled data.
Why do I need a VPN?
This all sounds confusing and unnecessary, so why use a VPN? Businesses originally used VPNs to connect multiple offices securely. However, individuals today use personal VPNs to build a home network. They also keep their communications and personal data secure when using WiFi networks.
Ultimately, you probably don’t feel comfortable knowing your online activity is being tracked and watched. If you want online security, use a VPN. So let’s look at some other reasons for using a virtual private network:
Access to streaming services
Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+, along with professional sports broadcasts, are only available in certain countries. When traveling, access to your suite of streaming services becomes limited. With a VPN, simply pick an IP address in your home country to gain access to your streaming platforms.
Simply put, countries might prevent people from accessing certain websites. This means accessing some websites you take for granted in your home country becomes impossible in a country you’re visiting. With a VPN, just choose a remote server in a different country to access restricted websites.
Regularly connecting to public WiFi
Remember, when connecting to free public WiFi, hackers might intercept your data and steal your photos, passwords, and personal files. This is true even if the public WiFi is password protected.
A VPN prevents cybercriminals from stealing your information because it encrypts your data, making it nearly impossible to decode. This fact lets you shop online, check your bank statements, and access your social media accounts without worry.
VPNs encrypt data transfers when you use the Web. Encryption encodes your confidential information; turning it from plain text to cipher text. Only authorized users with the right encryption key are able to decrypt it. When VPNs are used, only computers at each end of the encrypted tunnel access the information. This keeps all of your data, including search history, banking information, files, and photos completely secure.
So you look at a product online and subsequently see ads for the same or similar products. This is because your ISP is legally allowed to share your search history with third parties using your IP address.
Your computer’s IP address provides a copious amount information about you. This includes your download history and location data. A VPN shields your online history from advertisers, government agencies, and other third parties. This lets you browse the Internet without your ISP tracking your digital footprints.
How do I get a VPN?
There are numerous VPN service providers on the market today available to businesses and individuals. This makes it extremely easy to get a VPN. You also don’t need to switch ISPs or buy any fancy equipment to use a VPN. Simply find a VPN service provider that meets your needs. Some popular options include:
- Norton Secure VPN
Once you sign up with a VPN service provider, simply go to your computer’s settings and add a VPN connection.
Choosing a Virtual Private Network provider
When searching for a VPN provider, find one that has your best interests in mind. Consider these factors when deciding:
- Data Limits: If your Internet usage is high, ensure your VPN provider offers un-metered bandwidth with no data limits. This lets continue with your Internet usage without fear of those dreaded data caps.
- Price: Each VPN provider obviously comes with a price, and the more expensive option is often better. While there are free VPN service providers available, expect to be bombarded with advertisements. Perhaps some of your personal information gets collected and sent to third parties? Most VPN providers charge anywhere between $3 and $15 per month. These options are often more secure and provide more bandwidth.
- VPN Protocols: Numerous VPN protocols exist, which provide the rules for the connection between you and the VPN server. When choosing a VPN provider, make sure they use the most current protocols. The three common protocols are Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2LP), and OpenVPN. Of the three, OpenVPN often provides the strongest security.
- Accessibility: When using multiple devices, such as a laptop, smartphone, and tablet, you probably want your VPN to be accessible on each device. So make sure your VPN provider supports access to multiple devices.
- Privacy: One of the most common reasons people use VPNs is to enhance their privacy. However, not every VPN respects your privacy. So read the terms and conditions to verify the VPN provider has a no-log policy. This means they won’t keep track of your online activities.
- Location: Another reason people use VPNs involves access to geo-blocked websites and resources. For example, when traveling outside of the U.S. you may need a VPN to access your streaming services. So make sure your VPN provider has servers in the locations you need.
What are the advantages of a VPN?
As sated by PCWorld, “…VPNs can be helpful tools for protecting online privacy, and you need not be an office drone to enjoy their benefits.” VPNs offer a host of alluring advantages. Creating a VPN at home allows gamers to create a local area network (LAN) and privately connect with friends from other areas. Or, businesses keep confidential information secure when working from remote areas. Before long, expect everyone to enjoy personal, secure networks for home, work, and play.
Some advantages of VPNs include:
- Security: When using a VPN, all of your important information, such as confidential files, banking data, and passwords travel through an encrypted tunnel. This makes it difficult for hackers to decipher the code and access your information.
- Privacy: When connecting to your ISP, your connection is open to the world. This lets random people and third parties like advertisers and the government look at your data, log it, and use it.
They also look at your IP address and show targeted ads; perhaps even charging different prices for products you were viewing online. As noted earlier, a VPN encrypts your data and hides your IP address. This makes it challenging for third parties to track your activity.
- Access blocked websites: Countries around the world have the ability to restrict access to certain content, such as social networks, games, and search engines like Google. Additionally, educational institutions and workplaces often use firewalls to restrict access to certain websites to block inappropriate content or increase productivity. With a VPN, you’ll be able to bypass filters and unblock restricted websites.
- Remote access: For businesses, VPNs increase productivity because they make information available remotely from anywhere, such as an employee’s home or an office located overseas. If a problem arises at work and an employee isn’t at the office, they simply connect to the VPN and access information and files they may need.
What are the disadvantages of a VPN?
While there are numerous benefits of VPNs, they also include a few drawbacks. Let’s look at some disadvantages of a VPN to help guide your decision-making process:
- Legality issues: Unfortunately, some countries deem private networks illegal. When living in or traveling to a country where VPNs are illegal, you might face jail time or pay a hefty fine.
- Decreased performance: When using a VPN, it must connect to a private server before accessing a website. This causes performance issues and longer load times. When experiencing slow Internet speeds with a VPN, use our Internet speed test to understand the quality and efficiency of your connection.
- Privacy problems: In some cases, you might not have complete anonymity when using a VPN. Depending on the terms and conditions, some VPN providers track your activity and send it to third parties. Or, a VPN provider might have to comply with the government and share your personal information to federal, state, or local authorities.
As with most decisions in life, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons to determine the right choice for you. VPNs boast many beneficial advantages protecting your information on the Web. However, some disadvantages might cause problems down the line.
Key takeaways on the Virtual Private Network
Virtual private networks create a secure connection between your computer and a remote server by creating an encrypted tunnel for your private information to travel through. They’re a popular security measure for businesses and individuals to protect confidential information. Here are some key takeaways on VPNs:
- VPNs encrypt your data to make it untraceable by prying eyes and hackers.
- Public WiFi networks are vulnerable, which means your information is at risk. A VPN protects your data when connecting to public WiFi networks.
- A VPN hides your IP address by connecting to a remote server with a different IP address. This prevents your ISP from tracking your online activity and providing it to third parties like the government and advertisers.
- There are many reasons to use a VPN. If you travel frequently; want to access streaming services abroad; regularly connect to public WiFi, or want more privacy and security, a VPN helps with all of these problems.
- VPNs boast many advantages, such as the ability to access blocked websites, secure your information, enhance privacy, and provide remote access.
- VPNs also come with several disadvantages, such as legality issues, a decrease in web performance, and privacy problems.
Paul Williams brings a wide range of experiences to his writing. He worked extensively in technology, as a software engineer, technical writer, and now a technology writer. Known as the leader of one of the top American Spacerock bands, his forward-looking music continues to be heard all over the world.