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What is a VPN?

Photo by Petter Lagson on Unsplash

 

So what is a VPN? 

VPN is possibly another one of those acronyms that is thrown around by IT and Security professionals on a daily basis and which may go right over the heads of regular business users who just read “techy-speak-blah-blah-blah”. 

I get a similar feeling when I see financial terms or insurance lingo and let’s not even get started on legalese!

This is a guide for those who don’t have a clue.

GDPR is another one, I still can’t believe how many people working in businesses still don’t know what GDPR is, and this includes many business owners!  Given the risks and fines, it’s shocking to think that two years on, people have somehow managed to avoid the subject!

Anyway, we’re not on about GDPR here, I will save that for another day.  So, back to VPN. 

 VPN stands for “Virtual Private Network” – that’s probably still about as clear as mud if you’re still reading this.  Anyone who does know what VPN’s are and is still reading probably has too much time on their hands.

Virtual Private Networks are basically a private “tunnel” that is created between two points on the internet, which your data can pass through, safe from prying eyes.  So, imagine you’re able to send a postcard via the mail, where the postman, or anyone else who spots it can easily read the message on the card. 

That’s your data being sent over the public internet.

Now, imagine you put that postcard into an envelope and send it, now nobody can see the message inside. 
That could be likened to encrypting your message to keep it private.  This analogy isn’t going to be perfect, but hopefully it helps you a bit.

Now, thinking of your VPN, imagine if you had a pipeline, direct from you to your recipient of the message and you were able to send the postcard through that pipe and have it come out at the location of your intended recipient.  Nobody can see what is inside the pipe, and it starts at your location and comes out the other side.  Now that is your VPN.  The pipe that is.

As I write this, I keep thinking of those pipes they have at supermarkets where they put the cash into containers and pop it in the pipe and it disappears off and away to the back office somewhere.  Speaking of which, there’s an interesting story here about a thief who got caught stealing from those tubes!

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

 

Anyway, if you’re any clearer on VPN’s now, that’s a great start.

So, why use them? 

Well, they keep your data private, that’s one good reason.  Particularly if you regularly
use networks that you don’t or shouldn’t trust. 
Networks such as free Wi-Fi or other public networks such as the office network or hotel networks and so on.

Using a VPN in these cases can keep your browsing habits and also your data safe from the prying eyes of others on those networks or in-fact, the owners of the networks themselves, who might also be monitoring the connection.

VPN’s are also a great way of bypassing controls on some of these networks.  And whilst I wouldn’t recommend using a VPN as a way of bypassing a legitimate security control, it
would be fair to say you could use them to get around restrictions on what kind
of content you’re allowed to see. 

Going back to public free Wi-Fi for a moment, it’s a great convenience that so many companies now offer free Wi-Fi, unfortunately it’s also convenient for those who mean to spy on your activities.  Companies might want to monetise the data they gather from the users of the free Wi-Fi hotspots, equally, curious teenagers with an interest in hacking or more determined criminals might also be lurking on those networks, hoping to gather some valuable information which they can use to line their own pockets.

Anything you do on a public Wi-Fi is at risk of being monitored.  Though with the increased use of HTTPS sites now, there’s an additional layer of security, but even if the sites are secured with HTTPS, you’re still going to be giving away information about which sites you’re visiting.  This might not be information you’re wanting to share.

A VPN can protect you against this as everything you do will be going through that private pipeline we talked about earlier.

Now, maybe you’re thinking “How can I get a VPN then?” – well if you are, there are many options available to you.  After a whole heap of research, I opted for ProtonVPN, a company based in Switzerland who claim to be thoroughly neutral and who won’t track your data usage or log any information.

ProtonVPN as will be the same with many others, gives you the ability to select which country you’d like to exit “the pipe” from, which gives you the appearance of doing your web browsing within that country.

This can be useful if there are services, you’re wanting to use which are restricted to a particular country or region.

You can also get apps for Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS and Android.  This makes it incredibly easy to connect to a VPN wherever you are, whatever device you’re using.

I’m sure this doesn’t only apply to ProtonVPN, but as this is the service I use, it’s the one I’m using as an example.

There’s a lot of providers out there, some of those I’d consider looking at include ExpressVPN, NordVPN and CyberGhost. 

These are all paid providers where you subscribe on a monthly or annual basis.

Another option could be to set up a VPN on your home or Office network, you can then connect back to this remotely and direct all your browsing via your home or office connection.

The trouble with this is that you lose the ability to pop your connection out of whichever country you like. It also requires special software or hardware to be setup and maintained
which would require a certain level of technical knowledge.

Do you have any questions about VPN’s or other security concerns?  If so, please get in touch!

 

One Comment

  1. […] VPN’s make connecting from remote locations easier than ever before and pretty cost effective too.  With so many homes in the UK now having Fibre Broadband available to them, connectivity is not the challenge.  Having the right infrastructure and security in place to facilitate the connectivity is. […]

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