You have probably heard about Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) before and may have some general knowledge of what they are or how they work. But why exactly are they so important? Why does every other information security article mention them? Why have they become a big business and something advertised to you on every other website? Are they worth it, and what do they do?
In truth, a VPN is an immensely helpful and ultimately easy-to-use tool. It will allow you to stay safe online, protect your accounts and personal information alike, and ensure that you are not being tracked online. While initially used by businesses to facilitate remote work, they now are mostly used as a privacy and security tool.
With the most basic information out of the way, here is everything you need to know about VPNs and how to make the most of them.
Why They Are So Important to Your Privacy
You have probably heard some of the arguments here already and will hear them again, but VPNs genuinely are an incredibly useful privacy tool. Reporters have used them, people in countries with oppressive regimes, and people simply looking to watch content in other countries. Effectively use one and follow the best information security protocols, and nobody really knows what you are doing online unless you want them to.
To put it simply, a VPN prevents others from knowing where you are and instead shows you as an internet user from an entirely different place. We will go into some of the most common uses shortly. Still, as we can only expect that governments, corporations, and other parties will become increasingly interested in your habits and information, this is a valuable tool to protect your privacy and keep control of the data you share.
How Does a VPN Work?
We won't dive into the exact science of how VPNs work but will give you a general overview of the processes involved in a VPN to help clear up some misconceptions you might have.
Generally, when you first connect to a Virtual Private Network, it is done through a secure tunnel. Your machine sends data to the VPN server or node, and your VPN software encrypts it. The VPN server decrypts the data and processes your request for you, sending and receiving the data. This traffic or resulting data is encrypted again, sent back to you, and your VPN software will decrypt the data. In some ways, you are just outsourcing the processing of your web traffic for security reasons.
The data coming to and from your device is encrypted, which prevents people from snooping on the network, and the external processing of your requests, which hides your IP address (an effective signature of your device or network). These two things combined allow you to hide your identity.
While this can slow down some traffic (online gaming is not recommended for a VPN), the lightning-fast speed at which the internet operates means that this is still a reliable and reasonable way to use the internet, especially if you are dealing with sensitive data.
There may also be a few variations, depending on how the VPN is installed and what type of VPN you are using:
- Some VPNs are enabled through a router and directly installed there. The routers can be more expensive, and customization might be trickier, but all devices on the network will be efficiently protected in this way.
- A browser extension may run some. While these are easy to use and built into some browsers, they only work when you are using that browser and not any other app. While handy and a nice extra layer, they are not the most reliable option, especially as you can install a more dedicated VPN on your device.
- There are corporate VPNs set up to allow remote access to an organization's internal network or intranet. These are less common than they used to be, relatively rare for everyday usage, and the most you likely need to know is that they exist and were an effective precursor to the VPNs we use today.
How to Install and Use a VPN
The exact method of use may vary from app to app and whether you are using it on your computer or your mobile device, but the steps are generally as follows:
Desktop Installation and Use
1. Find your VPN of choice (make sure that it is trustworthy), create an account on their website, and download the desktop app. It should be readily available on the site.
2. Start up the app. You may then need to log in. Ensure that you are practicing good information security while doing so, as you are not connected to the VPN yet.
3. Select a server. There might be recommendations, and if you aren't trying to appear as though you're in a specific location, we recommend following those for the fastest connection.
4. Double check that you are connected on the right server and that the connection is fast enough for what you are trying to do.
5. Enjoy your security and privacy online and use your VPN to your heart's content. When you are done, you may want to log off. If you are experiencing difficulties, you may wish to switch servers.
That is all it takes, and even slower computers and users can likely get set up in 30 minutes. It takes less than a minute after you first sign up to get the app running and connected. It will quickly become a habit.
Mobile Installation and Use
1. Download the app onto your device. You will likely need to make an account on the app or their mobile website if you have not done so already.
2. Start up the app if you have not done so already. After logging in and setting up your subscription, you will be able to look at the various servers available, with the list dependent on the exact app you are using.
3. Select your country or server, log in, and wait for a connection.
4. Ensure that you are connected and that all your apps are working correctly with the VPN, and then enjoy your enhanced security.
Much like desktop installation, it is generally painless, and after the initial installation, can be set up in barely a minute.
For other types of devices, it will be similar to one of the above processes. Take care to read the specific instructions for the device or the information on the VPN's website.
There is also manual setup in some cases where you input a great deal more information, with the instructions generally given by your VPN provider. Most VPNs have a client or easy-setup process, so unless you have a particular reason to use a VPN that requires manual installation, you should avoid it.
Security Benefits of Using a VPN
To clarify again, when you use a VPN, you are effectively creating a tunnel of encryption around your connection so that no one looking will be able to see what you are doing online. This is different from a normal connection, which may be visible depending on whether you are using a site with HTTPS or other security measures.
Additionally, no one who wants to track your location or information will be able to unless you provide them with information directly (account information, manually inputting location information, etc.). This may be required for some transactions, but in truth, many companies want to collect data and invade your privacy for no reason other than profit. You do not need to oblige them if you use a VPN.
Always Use Them on Public Networks
Public networks are an information security and personal data disaster just waiting to happen. If they are unsecure (and by their nature, they virtually always are), then it's all too easy for a hacker to simply hang out in the same coffee shop, start up a sniffing device, and effectively get a copy of all of the information you send over the network. While you may get some protection from HTTPS protocols or additional security software you might have, these measures are not a perfect solution, and data still gets stolen in this way every single day.
In some cases, you are probably best off using your data plan, especially if you are worried about whether the network is trustworthy or a trap in the first place. If you need to do work, download larger files, or otherwise use a computer on a network outside of your home, starting up your VPN is always a safe option.
Additional Times to Use a VPN
On top of the times when you are on a public network, you may want to use a VPN in the following situations or for the following reasons:
- You are on a more private network but still do not necessarily trust the owner or think that the network has been compromised.
- You want to download files online but do not want to record your downloads (ISPs will frequently track your traffic).
- You want to access video or streaming content while you are traveling. If you have a US Netflix account but are abroad, you might find yourself locked out of some content. With a VPN, access will not be an issue if you select a server inside the United States.
- You want to access content hosted in other countries. While the ethics of this may be grey depending on the situation, the truth remains that many people use VPNs to get around geo-restrictions.
- Access sites that are otherwise censored where you live or where you are traveling. For example, Facebook and Instagram might not be accessible in some countries. It is best to check ahead of time whether you will need a VPN for access, as VPN websites are sometimes blocked as well.
On top of these, there will be more reasons to use a VPN as time goes on. The intricacies of using a VPN to do the above will change as well (geoblocking concerns, in particular, are characterized as an ongoing back and forth between VPNs and streaming services).
What a VPN Cannot Do
While a VPN is a fantastic tool for anyone concerned about their information security, they are not a cure-all, and you will still need to be careful online. Here are some things to know and continue to watch out for:
- A VPN will not protect you against phishing, social engineering schemes, and anyone trying to trick you out of your information instead of just trying to take the information against your will.
- A VPN will also not be able to root out viruses on your computer nor filter them out if you allow them onto your device. It protects the information you send and receive over a network. There is nothing about whether that information itself is safe or whether apps or programs are safe. That is what a cybersecurity suite is for.
- While a VPN can also prevent most forms of outside tracking, certain things such as apps using geolocation might not be protected. Similarly, apps that collect your data and send it elsewhere (whether you willingly give it to them or you have previously granted them access) will still be able to do so, although maybe at a more limited capacity depending on their methods.
- They are not perfect. If an organization wants to launch an extremely dedicated effort to determine your whereabouts, they might be able to track you down regardless by tracing signals, using other factors and data, or in some cases forcing the VPN to reveal information (which is why it is so important that records are destroyed).
What VPNs Are Best?
While this is not a VPN review page and has no intention of trying to be one (there are plenty of those online that have excellent rundowns), there are some factors and features you should look for. While some things are covered in the next section, you will want the following:
- There are free VPNs and more expensive VPNs. You may be inclined to go with the free ones as they seem to do the same thing, you should resist this urge. There is usually a catch to free VPNs, and more premium options generally have more servers, can provide better privacy, and have a better user experience. We find that it is usually worth it to pay for a VPN service.
- The less information the VPN service provider keeps, the better. No matter your intentions and actions online, you would rather avoid having records of what you are doing and from where. Avoiding such records is one of the key reasons to use a VPN.
- Servers in multiple countries and areas, ideally with some closer to your region. While you do not necessarily need a VPN server in your hometown, if all the servers are halfway across the world, ping rates could become unacceptable, and you might not be able to do much online.
- VPNs that can regularly provide a faster connection are best. While your own connection is the most important factor here, you want to keep a VPNs mitigating effects to a minimum so you can use the internet normally.
Additional Notes and Information
Given that VPNs can be complex in their usage despite their basic simplicity, there are a few things that you should know:
- If you use a free VPN, note that you may run into issues besides those related to privacy. They generally are not reliable enough, may take your information themselves, and often do not perform the best practices associated with the industry.
- Some institutions, websites, and other places may frown on using a VPN and try to block them. You will want to make sure you have a VPN advanced enough to get around these blocks, especially if your personal security is at stake.
- VPNs can cause a slowdown in your internet connection, depending on what server location you choose. You will need to make sure the network you are using is fast enough to support this and the task you are hoping to perform. While streaming content over a VPN is common, doing so over a weak connection can lead to a lot of frustration.
- Some VPNs can make sure that records of usage are completely unavailable, protecting your privacy further. Others are not able to offer this based on the laws of the country where they are based. Be careful about this, and try to find a VPN that fits your needs and can provide this level of anonymity.
Virtual Private Networks are for so much more than merely getting around geo-restrictions and making yourself untraceable. They are a vital part of a cybersecurity setup, especially if you are on the go and regularly work with sensitive information. And with all the misinformation about VPNs currently online, we hope that you have a clearer picture of how to properly use one and precisely what one can do for your life.