What is a VPN: Your Complete Guide To a VPN and Do You Really Need One?
VPN seems to be a hot commodity right now. With an increase in remote working (which looks set to stay), large marketing campaigns from various providers are popping up left, right and centre.
Search VPN and you’ll either get blog posts on why you absolutely need a VPN from providers or what seems to be another scare-mongering paid article. It’s easy to get sucked in and think, “do I need VPN?”.
After all, you want to do all you can to protect your confidential data, right?
Yes, there are certainly benefits to using a VPN, such as them providing a more private way to use the internet. But it’s important to remember that a VPN is not the ultimate security fix you’ve been hoping for (or promised).
While there are genuine VPN service providers, some are preying on people’s fear of online privacy and security; misleading people into thinking they need their product or overpromising the capabilities of VPNs. This could lead you to believe that you’re more secure than you think or pay for a service that doesn’t benefit you.
And that’s not ok with us!
Whether you want to know if a VPN is necessary for privacy or for your remote working strategy – Read on to find out what a VPN is, what it isn’t and when you really need a VPN.
What is a VPN (Virtual Private Network )?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and is mainly used in the workplace to connect you to the office network from a remote location through an encrypted tunnel.
As time has passed and internet security fears have grown, a new use of VPN has been thrust upon us.
Namely, a paid service that routes all your internet traffic through a VPN server rather than sending it directly via your Internet Service Provider (ISP). This makes it look as though your data comes from the VPN server, not your digital device.
The VPN server route, along with the encryption tunnel, can stop your ISP, hackers, and anyone else from seeing your internet activity and hide specific data like your:
- Browser history
- Internet Protocol (IP) address
- Geographical location
- Devices, such as laptops or smartphones.
So, you can start to see why a VPN might seem appealing for businesses, particularly those with remote workers.
How does a VPN work ?
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) works using encryption protocols to filter all your internet browsing through an encrypted tunnel – a virtual private network – between your IP address and a remote VPN server. It hides your IP address and protects your information, preventing others from intercepting it.
If you are not using a VPN, all your internet searching is potentially tracked by your internet service provider (ISP), advertisers, government, or other people on your network. Using an encrypted VPN connection boosts your security and privacy online.
What is VPN encryption?
A VPN encryption is a process of using data encryption (encryption protocols) to build a secure tunnel for your information to travel through. If someone tries to examine your internet connection, they’ll see scrambled data.
Only your VPN server and the device you’re using can encrypt, decrypt, or unscramble your data.
However many encryption algorithms or methods do exist, most VPNs use the 256-bit AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) algorithm. This type of encryption is so secure that it is used by governments and banks worldwide.
What are VPN protocols?
A VPN protocol is a combination of sets of instructions and rules that build a secure connection between your device and the VPN’s proxy servers.
Each VPN protocol is a set of transmission protocols and encryption methods. You can change your VPN or internet protocol in the settings of your VPN app.
OpenVPN is one of the leading VPN protocols due to its security and privacy popularity.
As an open-source protocol, its source code is easily available for anyone to verify. If exploitable vulnerabilities are available, they are addressed by the developers that support them.
VPN connections that use open-source code also permit anyone to verify that developers are not doing anything suspicious themselves.
IKEv2 is an efficient VPN protocol combined with the IPsec protocol for security. IKEv2 also uses 256-bit encryption just like OpenVPN, and both can deliver simultaneous connections. It’s particularly popular with mobile devices because it can simply switch between mobile data and a Wi-Fi network. However, it is not open-source like the OpenVPN protocol.
Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) was developed by Cisco and Microsoft as the successor to PPTP. It’s responsible for building VPN connections, and L2TP is sometimes combined with IPsec for making it a more secure VPN for ultimate security.
PPTP is abbreviated as Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol, and is an obsolete and far less secure protocol still popular with free VPN services.
However, it is easier to set up than more advanced options, PPTP is known to be full of security flaws and should be avoided if you’re looking for a secure VPN connection.
Why is it important to hide your IP address?
An IP Address is a unique set of numbers with a particular format that identifies your device when you connect to the internet.
Just like a postal service that uses street addresses to deliver mail to the right people, IP Addresses make sure that internet access gets sent to the right computers.
Your IP address links your device to your internet service provider as well as to your general geographical location.
This is how content streaming platforms do geoblocking – restricting content from region to region. Based on your IP address, you are allowed to see the content that is available to view in your part of the world.
When you use a VPN, it masks your actual IP address by showing the public internet the IP address of the VPN server you are using instead of your own. A virtual private network (VPN) prevents anyone from finding your IP addresses.
Some VPN services cluster multiple users under one shared IP address, which further helps you to browse anonymously.
All your internet activities are kept fully private from internet service providers, hackers and more. A VPN server secures you in multiple ways.
Using VPNs protect your privacy by masking you and other users behind a single shared IP address.
This makes it super difficult for anyone to track your internet activity since multiple users are sharing a single IP address at any given time.
When should I use a VPN ?
With remote working on the rise, more people are opting for a VPN.
You should welcome any additional measures to secure your data. But, unless you want to do any of the below regularly, you might want to reconsider forking out for a VPN.
Here are some reasons you might need a VPN:
When you’re using public Wi-Fi:
If you’re using public wi-fi in places like coffee shops, on public transport or in hotels, a VPN service could be very beneficial to you, as your data traffic becomes instantly encrypted.
To access blocked websites:
If you’re in a country that blocks certain websites, you can get around this with a VPN.
As your internet traffic is routed out via the VPN provider’s servers, you can effectively ‘fake’ your location to bypass censorship.
Similarly, if you’re on holiday and want to download episodes of your favourite tv show via their digital service for the plane home, you can connect to a VPN in the UK and continue like normal (don’t worry, we’ve all been there!).
To access company files while working remotely:
If your company isn’t working in the cloud, you may have systems that need a remote connection back to the office.
A remote-access VPN lets your remote workers log onto your office network from anywhere. This is something that would be provided by your company’s IT support – not by a paid service.
There are some countries that limit internet access. China blocks Facebook and Google and all their associated services, such as Google Maps, Gmail, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Using a VPN to get around censorship blocks can unblock content geoblocking and website restrictions.
Evade ISP tracking:
If you don’t use any VPN service, your internet service provider (ISP) can track your internet activity; the services and websites you use, for how long, and when you use them.
As many people don’t know how much leverage your ISP has over your data. In the United Kingdom, your ISP keeps your online history for 12 months— it includes everything you watch, click, view, and read.
But in the USA, your ISP saves your history and sells it to the highest bidder — such as a data broker, subscription service, advertising network — without your permission. Source: avg.com
But a VPN service protects you from this type of invasion of privacy. Since your device’s internet connection is encrypted, your internet service provider can’t monitor exactly what you are doing online, and they can’t even see your browsing history.
Prevent price discrimination:
When eCommerce websites offer different prices to different users based on their perceived ability to pay, price discrimination does happen. Online retailers use multiple criteria to calculate the price of a product for any given viewer, demographic information (your real-world location) along the type of device being used.
For example, airlines are often accused of price discrimination, with price changing of flights depending on where you buy, when you buy, and many other factors. You can prevent location-based price discrimination by using a VPN to give yourself an IP address in another part of the world.
Types of VPN
There are many types of VPN, but they can be categorised into 2 popular types. Here are:
Remote Access VPN
According to Palo Alto network, “remote-access VPN enables users who work remotely to securely access and use information and applications that reside in the corporate data centre and headquarters, making all traffic encrypted, users send and receive.”
This type of VPN does this by building a tunnel between an organisation’s network and a remote user that is “virtually private”, even though the user may be in a public location and using public Wi-Fi networks.
With remote access VPN, users can securely access & use the organisation’s network system in much the same way as if they were physically in the office.
Using this type of VPN, data can be transmitted without an organisation leaving to worry about the communication being tampered with or intercepted.
According to Kaspersky, “A site-to-site VPN is a private network that is designed to hide private intranets and permit users of these secure networks to enter each other’s resources.”
This type of VPN is fruitful if you’ve multiple locations in your company, each with its own LAN (Local Area Network) connected to WAN (Wide Area Network). If you’ve two separate intranets b/w which you need to send or receive files without users from one intranet explicitly accessing the other, site-to-site VPNs are best in such a case.
Site-to-site VPNs are mostly used in large organisations. They’re complex to implement and don’t provide the same flexibility as SSL VPNs do. By the way, site-to-site VPNs are the most effective way to ensure communication within and b/w large departments.
What is a VPN not?
With all the marketing spiel out there, you’d be forgiven for thinking a VPN is an all-in-one solution to internet security. But this isn’t the case.
Yes, it’s great if you use it for the reasons mentioned above, but do you want to spend all that money on a service you don’t really need? Your home or office internet is already fully encrypted with the wifi key, and your ISP isn’t usually the one spying on you!
So, what does a VPN not do? Keep in mind that:A VPN doesn’t protect you from malware:
A VPN encrypts your data to stop cybercriminals spying on it, but it doesn’t secure your device. For this, you’ll need up-to-date antivirus software.
A VPN doesn’t provide 100% security:
A VPN shifts your traffic data from your ISP to your VPN provider. Who’s to say the VPN provider isn’t snooping on your data, logging it or selling it? VPN servers aren’t completely hack-proof either.
A VPN doesn’t offer complete anonymity:
Don’t believe unrealistic claims that you’ll be completely invisible using a VPN. While VPNs give you a degree of privacy, it’s impossible to be 100% anonymous online. After all, the data you put on the internet must be stored somewhere.
A VPN doesn’t hide your data:
With or without a VPN, your data is still being harvested. So, the big companies
still have your information and are on standby to provide you with their latest advertising listing (but using your VPN service’s location).
A VPN doesn’t increase your internet speed:
This isn’t strictly related to internet security, but it’s a claim to be wary of. Many VPN providers say that a VPN speeds up your internet. Remember, a VPN can only be as fast as your internet connection.
4 online security best practices
It’s critical to bear in mind that VPN is just one layer of security. It’s your responsibility to keep your business and client data secure. A VPN alone won’t do that. Extra measures to ensure your online security include:
1- Only access secure websites
By this, we mean only click on websites that have a URL that begins with “HTTPS://”. If you don’t, your internet traffic is visible to people on a shared network.
HTTPS is an internet communication protocol, which means your connection to that website is secure and encrypted.
Look for HTTPS on every page you visit and make sure your website is secure with an SSL certificate. If you need an SSL certificate for your domain, we can help. Book a call with us today.
2- Use two-factor authentication (2FA)
Set up two-factor authentication (also known as two-step verification) whenever you can. This adds an extra layer of security to your online accounts by requiring two forms of identification to log in.
For instance, along with your password, you will be sent a code to your mobile device.
This means that if your password has been leaked, the hacker will also need the code sent to your mobile device to access your account. It’s also a good way to be alerted if someone is trying to access your account without your knowledge.
3- Install antivirus software
Your device is at constant risk of viruses and malware when you’re using the internet, and this risk is even higher when you’re using public wi-fi.
Up-to-date antivirus is critical to keeping your devices secure as it will detect, prevent and action malicious software in your computer. Always run updates and keep your devices updated too.
4- Use a password manager
Weak passwords or using the same password are some of the top cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
Once your system has been hacked, cybercriminals will try their luck on other platforms using the details they already have for you.
Your passwords are then stored in an encrypted form, and you can easily and securely access them – great for managing shared accounts. Remember to change your passwords regularly as well.
Can I still be tracked online when using a VPN Service?
When you pay for your VPN with a debit/credit card, VPN providers will likely know who you are and where you are based. Since you connect to a VPN from your device, they’ll also know about your IP address.
But that’s all — most VPNs don’t track your browsing activity, and many include explicit no-logging policies that forbid them from knowing any information about what you do while using their VPN service.
A popular VPN service provider also offers the same day money-back guarantee if it doesn’t satisfy you.
VPN providers protect your data along its trip b/w the VPN server and your device. If you are connected to the internet and websites you visit that uses HTTPS encryption, your information will be secure along its entire journey. But if you’re browsing unsecured websites, your personal data will be out after it leaves the VPN server.
While VPNs can secure you from being exposed based on your IP address, they can’t block other web tracking methods like cookies and browser fingerprinting. Once you log in to a website like a social network, that site can still track what you share, like, and click on even if you are using a secure VPN, because you are logged in.
Security and privacy extension for browsers like Chrome and, especially, truly private and secure browsers can block cookies & save you against ad tracking and browser-based web, while a VPN masks your data and hides your IP address.
As discussed earlier, VPNs that offer shared IP addresses give you another layer of protection. By combining multiple users under a single IP address, virtual private networks make it very difficult for anyone to track your online activity.
So, you have found out what a VPN is, but do you really need a VPN? If you work from home, stick to the best security practices like the ones outlined above and avoid public wi-fi, you’ll probably be ok without a VPN.
That’s not to say VPNs can’t be beneficial. They provide a secure connection between your network and devices, encrypt your data and give you access to geo-blocked websites. But, remember, a VPN is just one layer of security. Be wary of inflated claims by VPN service providers. If something’s too good to be true, it probably is.
Wondering if a VPN is the best option for you? Talk to us today. Our friendly team of IT experts are on hand to help and advise you on all things IT.