Virtual Private Networks (VPNs): What they are and why you might need one

17 June 2024


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Have you ever connected to public Wi-Fi and worried about who might be snooping on your activity? Or perhaps you’ve stumbled upon a website restricted to your region and wished there was a way around it. Not to mention that in our digitally connected world, protecting our online activities is more important than ever. This is where a Virtual Private Network (VPN) can become your best friend. But what exactly are VPNs and why should you consider using one?

In this guide, we’ll delve into the world of VPNs, explaining what they are, how they work and why they might be an essential tool for your online security and privacy.

What is a VPN?

At its core, a VPN is a technology that creates a secure and encrypted connection over a less secure network, such as the internet. Think of it as a tunnel that shields your data as it travels between your device and the internet. This tunnel prevents outsiders, including hackers and even your internet service provider (ISP), from seeing your online activities.

Here’s a breakdown of the key terms:

  • Virtual: this means that there are no physical wires involved – it’s a virtual pathway created through software
  • Private: the data travelling through the tunnel is encrypted, making it unreadable by anyone who might intercept it
  • Network: it extends your existing internet connection to create a secure and private pathway for your data

At the same time, a VPN is made up of several key components. For instance, it uses sophisticated encryption protocols to scramble your data, making it unreadable, while it also makes use of secure communication protocols to establish a safe and reliable connection between your device and the VPN server.

Wondering how it works? Let’s say you’re in a coffee shop, connected to the public Wi-Fi. Without a VPN, your data is transmitted in the open, making it vulnerable to cybercriminals, however, if you’re using a VPN, your device first connects to its server, which then forwards your requests to the internet.

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown:

  1. Connection to VPN Server: when you activate your VPN, your device connects to a VPN server, which could be located anywhere in the world
  2. Encryption process: your data is encrypted before it leaves your device and this makes your data unreadable to anyone who might intercept it during its journey to the VPN server
  3. IP address masking: the VPN server assigns a new IP address to your internet connection, which hides your real IP address and location from the websites you visit
  4. Data transmission: the VPN server decrypts your data and sends it to the intended website or service. The process is reversed when the website sends data back to you.

Mobile phone with VPN screen

Why you might need a VPN

From security and privacy to accessing restricted content, there are several compelling reasons to use a VPN.

Enhanced security on public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi networks, like those in cafes, airports, and hotels, are convenient but also notorious for their lack of security. Using a VPN on public Wi-Fi adds a crucial layer of security by encrypting your sensitive data like passwords, credit card numbers and personal messages, making it nearly impossible for hackers to get to this information.

Privacy protection

In an era where our online activities are often monitored and tracked, maintaining privacy is crucial. Advertisers, ISPs and even government agencies can monitor your browsing habits, however, a VPN can hide your online activities, making it difficult for third parties to track your digital footprint.

Access to geo-restricted content

Ever tried to watch a show or access a website only to be told it’s not available in your region? Many online services restrict content based on your geographical location, but with a VPN, you can connect to a server in a different country and bypass these restrictions.

Safe remote work

For those working from home or remotely, VPNs are invaluable. They provide secure access to company resources and ensure that sensitive work data is protected. In fact, many businesses mandate the use of VPNs for remote access to their networks, safeguarding both employee and company information.

Protection against cyber threats

Cyber threats, such as malware and phishing attacks, are ever-present dangers online. While a VPN is not a catch-all solution, it significantly reduces the risk by keeping your data private and your IP address hidden. And some advanced VPN services also offer built-in features to block malicious websites and ads.

Young man looking worried using his laptop

How to choose the right VPN

With so many VPN providers available, choosing the right one can be daunting. Generally speaking, you should look for one with robust encryption protocols like AES-256, a strict no-logs policy so that the VPN provider doesn’t track or store your online activities and a kill switch, which disconnects you from the internet if the VPN connection drops. Also, look into the server locations since a larger network of these provides more options for bypassing geographical restrictions and can improve connection speeds. One more thing to consider is that since VPNs route your traffic through additional servers, they can sometimes slow down your connection, so it’s important to opt for a provider known for maintaining high speeds, especially if you plan to stream or download large files. Lastly, good customer support can make a big difference, especially if you encounter technical issues, which means that you should go for a provider that offers 24/7 support and a comprehensive knowledge base.

Common VPN myths debunked

Despite their many benefits, there are some common misconceptions about VPNs. Let’s address these two:

VPNs are only for tech experts

While VPN technology might sound complex, most VPN services are designed with user-friendliness in mind so if you can install an app on your phone or computer, you can easily use a VPN. In fact, many providers offer one-click setups and intuitive interfaces that make getting started a breeze.

VPNs make you completely anonymous

VPNs provide a significant layer of privacy, however, they do not make you completely anonymous. Your VPN provider can still see your activity, although reputable ones won’t log or store this data. Additionally, other online behaviors, like logging into social media accounts, can reveal your identity.

Investing in a reliable VPN service is essential for your online safety and freedom. With numerous options available, finding the right one to suit your needs can open up a world of possibilities while keeping your digital life secure.

Interested in more online security-related topics? Take a look at how you can keep your personal data safe and how to avoid online shopping scams. And here is how you can secure your home network. Meanwhile, for the little ones, read through these online security tips or kids.