What is a VPN?
A virtual private network (better known as a VPN), is one of the easiest and most effective ways of protecting your anonymity online. Connecting to a secure VPN server masks your internet protocol (IP), as it encrypts your internet traffic in real time. This ensures that your identity and online activities are virtually untraceable from third parties, including hackers, governments and internet service providers (ISPs). VPN services protect your network connection when using public networks, providing greater privacy for your personal data and information.
Why should you use a VPN?
If you value online privacy and security, then you should strongly consider employing a VPN every time your device is connected to the internet. Using an unsecured internet connection (whether it’s one set up by an ISP or a public Wi-Fi network), exposes your personal information, private data and browsing habits to cyber criminals.
When utilising an internet connection provided by an ISP, your network traffic is routed through your ISP’s servers. This tracks your IP address and catalogues everything you do online. While your ISP might not seem nefarious, they could very well be sharing your browsing preferences with advertisers, law enforcers, governmental bodies and other third parties. Furthermore, if your ISP falls victim to a cyberattack, then your personal and private data will likely be compromised as well.
Public Wi-Fi networks that don’t require a password to access are even more dubious, as any strangers using the same network can snoop on your online session. You never know who could be eavesdropping and you may inadvertently give them the perfect opportunity to steal your passwords, personal data, banking and payment details, etc. Even just the smallest bit of information is all cyber criminals need to commit identity theft and/or financial fraud.
This is where a VPN comes in. VPNs hide your IP address, while also scrambling your data so that no one else can read it. This maintains your anonymity when web surfing, downloading files and commenting on forums. It also ensures that your private activities stays private, including sending emails, online shopping, paying bills, accessing medical records, etc. VPN apps also run in the background of your device, giving you peace of mind without disrupting your online activities.
How does a VPN work?
When you connect to the internet via a VPN, the network redirects your IP address through a remote server run by the VPN host. This creates a data ‘tunnel’, wherein your local network is the entrance and exits through a node in a location which could potentially be thousands of miles away. This means that the VPN server now becomes the source of your data, so the websites you visit can only see the IP address of the VPN server and not the IP address of your device. So while your internet traffic still passes through your ISP, your internet activity will appear to originate from VPN’s server IP address, which safeguards your browsing history from both your ISP as well as any websites who record search histories and track locations. VPN service providers typically have servers across the globe that are shared amongst multiple users and are frequently changed for security reasons. In addition, VPNs also work as a filter, encrypting your data and making it incomprehensible. This renders it entirely useless to your ISP, as well as any third parties who may seek to steal it. While this is a basic overview of how VPNs operate, a comprehensive VPN solution should perform all of the following tasks to protect itself (and you) from being compromised.
- Encryption of IP address: a VPNs number-one job is to conceal your IP address from any and all third parties. This guarantees all information you send and receive online can only be seen by you and your VPN service provider.
- Encryption of protocols: a VPN should also prevent you from leaving a digital footprint. Encrypting cookies, as well as your browser and search history, stops unwanted third parties from accessing your confidential and personal information.
- Kill switch: a sudden interruption to your VPN connection results in an interruption to your secure connection. A VPN that can automatically detect sudden downtime is able to reduce the risk of your data being compromised by terminating preselected programs.
- Two-factor authentication: a VPN that requires multiple authentication methods increases the difficulty for third parties to trespass on your network connection. This may include a combination of multiple passwords, verification codes and/or authenticator apps.
What are the benefits of using a VPN?
Using a VPN comes with a number of benefits, which include (but are not limited to) the following:
Protecting Your Devices
Keep your devices safe from cyber attacks by using a VPN. Anything that can be used to access the internet including desktop computers, laptops, tablets and even smart phones, can be exploited by cyber criminals looking to profit off your personal information. A VPN can shield your data and keep it away from prying eyes.
Protecting Your Browsing History
It’s no secret that everything you do on the internet is being watched. ISPs, websites and internet browsers keep track of everything you do and tie that information back to your IP address. Your data is then qualified, quantified and exploited. Beyond feeling violated that others may be privy to potentially embarrassing private information (such as medical conditions), it’s just plain annoying. Targeted ads are everywhere these days and they often lead to consumers being scammed, ripped off or worse.
Disguising Your Whereabouts
Your IP address links everything you’ve searched, clicked on, posted, watched and downloaded on the internet to your location and device. Think of it as the return address you’d put on the back of a letter. VPNs allow you to do all these online activities anonymously, by disguising your own IP address with that of the VPN server. Not only does this protect your privacy, but it halts the viewing, collection and sale of your search history.
Secure Transfer of Data
When working away from the office you may still need to access important files on your organisation’s network. Depending on the work you do, these files may contain sensitive information that must be protected at all costs. To access them, you’ll need a fast, reliable and secure VPN connection. Using a VPN that connects to private servers and uses encryption methods can minimise the risk of data leakage.
Get Access to Geo-blocked and Regional Content
As we’ve discussed, your IP address is a unique number that identifies you, your device and geographical location. You can customise your VPN connection to make it appear as if you’re in any one of the countries the VPN service provider has servers in. Streaming services such as Netflix often have different catalogues of content depending on your region. Using a VPN to change your location enables you to access a wider range of titles. Furthermore, some websites may geo-block their products and content, prohibiting certain countries or restricting access to specific locations. With VPN location spoofing, you’ll never again have to miss out because of where in the world you call home.
Prevent Price Discrimination
Price discrimination refers to the practice of varying the price of products or services based on the consumer’s location, previous purchases on the platform (first-time vs repeat customers, etc), and online shopping preferences (reseller websites like eBay, fast fashion brands, luxury and designer labels, etc). These factors are considered by automated algorithms, who then determine the pricing. By inhibiting these algorithms from accessing your internet history and cookies, VPNs can save consumers from being grossly overcharged.
Certain countries restrict (or even prohibit) their citizens ability to freely explore the internet and easily access information. For tourists trying to find their way around, search for recommendations, and get in touch with friends and family back home, this can cause a lot of frustration. However, a VPN can circumvent censorship and internet blocks, giving you access to all the resources you may need while abroad. It is important to remember that it is the user’s responsibility to carefully research the country’s laws, as using a VPN may not always be legal.
Prevent Data Throttling
Some ISPs include ‘data caps’ in their terms and services. This means that once you’ve consumed a predetermined amount of your available data, your ISP will slow your internet service down. This is known as ‘data throttling’. VPNs can help you avoid reaching data caps altogether, as it bars your ISP from determining how much data you’re using.
Avoid Bandwidth Throttling
Similarly, ‘bandwidth throttling’ refers to an intentional slowing down of your internet speed by your ISP, or by anyone else who has control over your Wi-Fi network’s performance. Bandwidth throttling is often triggered by visiting certain websites or engaging in specific internet activity. Once again, a VPN encrypts the internet traffic coming from your device, so your ISP will be unable to see the data going to and from your device. This means that they will not be alerted to either of these scenarios and you can avoid having your bandwidth throttled.
It’s not just everyday users who can benefit from employing a VPN, but businesses as well. VPNs can provide flexible network scalability for companies struggling with the costs of expanding their operations. For example, a VPN server can provide a number of remote employees simultaneous access to on-site information, devices and applications. Adding additional employees is simple, all you need is the bandwidth and login credentials.
Reduce Support Costs
A VPN set up that also incorporates cloud computing architecture can save businesses considerable time and money on support services. For example, when businesses outsource their server needs to a VPN service provider, that provider then becomes responsible for optimising the server’s performance, ongoing maintenance and cybersecurity measures. As VPN service providers support a large number of clients, the cost per client is relatively low and are generally more cost-effective than placing the burden on an internal IT support team. However, businesses should still be sure to find a VPN service provider who suits their individual needs. This may include carefully checking the level of service they offer, as well as what kind of hardware they use.
What to look for in a VPN service provider
There’s a lot to consider when choosing a VPN service provider. Although there are many great VPN choices that can help protect your security, privacy and anonymity online, it’s important to do your homework and find one that caters to your specific needs. Here’s a few questions to help you determine which VPN service provider is right for you:
Will they respect your privacy?
If you want a VPN that values your privacy, then you should ensure that your VPN service provider has a no-log policy. A no-log policy guarantees that your online activities will never be monitored and recorded, not even from your VPN service provider.
Are their cybersecurity protocols up-to-date?
Some VPN service providers have stronger, more current security protocols in place. It’s important to know how well equipped your VPN service provider is to defend against cyberattacks and how often they perform cybersecurity risk assessments.
Do they set data limits?
Bandwidth is often the deciding factor for a lot of users searching for a VPN service provider. Their services need to match your needs, so if you spend a lot of time and data on the internet then make sure you’re going to get full, unmetered bandwidth without data caps.
Where are the servers located?
This ones a no-brainer. If your IP address to appears as if it’s located in a specific country, then you need to make sure the VPN service provider has a server in that country.
Do they enable VPN access on multiple devices?
The average consumer typically accesses the internet from multiple personal devices and all of them need to be able to use the VPN at the same time.
What’s the bottom dollar?
If cost is an issue then the good news is that there are free VPNs out there. However, it’s good to keep in mind the old adage, “you get what you pay for.” While you might not be handing over cold, hard cash, you’ll most likely endure frequent advertisements or may even have your personal information sold to third parties. Typically, free VPNs don’t offer the best cybersecurity protocols, variety of server locations, highest bandwidths, fastest connection speeds or support. If you’re going the free route, make sure you’re extra vigilant when choosing a VPN service provider.