In this article, we take a brief look at what a VPN is, how it works, its advantages, plus its disadvantages.
What Is A VPN?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a service that allows you to create a secure connection to another network over the Internet, thereby creating a secure, protected, encrypted ‘tunnel’. A VPN is a private, secure, way to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if your computing devices are directly connected to the private network.
How Does a VPN Work?
A VPN works by routing your device’s internet connection through your VPN provider’s private server rather than your internet service provider (ISP). This creates an encrypted virtual tunnel. Also, the fact that your traffic is exiting the VPN provider’s server means that your true IP address is hidden, thereby hiding your identity and location.
Why Use A VPN?
There are many reasons why people use VPNs including:
- A general wish to keep data secure, keep online activity private, and feel safer.
- Protection from the risks of using public Wi-Fi networks (e.g. while out and about).
- Maintaining security when working remotely/from home (as many have done during the pandemic).
- As a good way to protect all devices in one go (for example, most paid-for VPNs provide multiple simultaneous connections).
- To escape bandwidth throttling.
- For those living in countries where there are repressive regimes, VPNs can help users stay in touch with the outside without being detected. However, VPNs and proxies have been banned in Russia for several years now, and China has regulated Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) through the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and required developers to seek a license from the government before creating VPNs.
Choosing a VPN
Things to consider when choosing a VPN service include:
- A service with no logging (no keeping of logs) can provide greater privacy.
- Find out where the VPN operator is geographically based. For example, a VPN company in some countries may be subject to control and interference (enabling logging and adding tracking) by the state. Many VPN services, for example are based in China.
- Google the VPN service to see if there has been any history of incidents and problems with the service.
- Read reviews about different VPN services (however, you should appreciate that that some may be unreliable, paid-for reviews).
- Make sure that the VPN service you choose has enough ‘exit nodes’ in the location you want to connect from in order to get better speed and service.
- Check whether the service disallows certain protocols e.g., P2P traffic, thereby potentially negatively affecting the service levels at certain times.
Some advantages of VPNs include:
- Getting around geo-locking of content. For example, a VPN can make a user look like they are in a region where content is available, thereby giving the user access to their favourite content wherever they are.
- VPNs provide safety, security, and anonymity e.g., they hide details such as location.
- VPNs are a good way to provide a secure connection for remote workers.
- Convenience. Having a VPN that can easily switched on (e.g., while using a device in public place such as a café) offers a very convenient mobile security and privacy solution.
- If shopping online, using a VPN can help save money by getting around different prices for services based on region.
- VPNs can represent a very cost-effective security measure when compared to the costs of some security software (licensing fees) and firewalls.
Some of the disadvantages of VPNs include:
- Since a VPN is a virtual connection inside a physical network, slow connection speeds can sometimes be the result. VPN service providers are, however working on ways to minimise this problem.
- VPN blockers can be used by companies looking to charge users based on their geographic location.
- Setting up some VPNs can be complicated, and poor configuration from poor setup could lead to information leaks.
- Dropped connections can be a problem with VPNs. This can mean that a user’s true network information is displayed and can also lead to problems with a user’s ISP if sites have been visited that violate the ISP’s terms of service.
- VPNs may make it more challenging for activities that require bandwidth (e.g. gaming), however this can be easily enabled and disabled.
Popular VPN services promoted in the UK include ExpressVPN, NordVPN, Surfshark, IPVanish, CyberGhost, Hotspot Shield, ProtonVPN, and Private Internet Access.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
A VPN is a convenient and effective security and privacy tool that has become particularly relevant for remote workers over the last year. Choosing a trusted, paid-for VPN solution with a good reputation is advisable for maximum peace of mind and VPNs offer benefits beyond just security (e.g. getting around geo-locking of content). It should always be remembered, however, that a VPN is one of many different tools and tactics that businesses can use as part of a much broader business and cyber security strategy.
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