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Topic Wireless Networks

Essential Guide to Virtual Private Networks (VPN)

VPN — you’ve heard your friends talk about it, you know it has something to do with online privacy and security, and you’re thinking of getting one. But before you jump the gun, let us give you a thorough overview of what a VPN is and how it works.

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Table of contents

What is a VPN?

A virtual private network, or VPN, is essentially a “tunnel” created between your device and a dedicated server to ensure your data is kept secure on its way to and from any internet resources you access. These servers shield your identity, keeping you protected and anonymous by encrypting your traffic and masking your IP address.

 

According to the GWI study, 64% of VPN users worry about how their personal data is used. The best way to get rid of your concerns is to educate yourself on how VPN works and why you should use it. 

What does a VPN do?

VPN services come in different shapes and sizes. These days, you can even get one for your smartphone or buy a VPN-enabled router for your home and protect all of your devices at once.

 

Here are the main things a VPN can do.

Reroutes your traffic through a private server

When you connect to the internet through a service provider (be it from home or on a public bus), your identity and browsing behavior can be exposed. VPN software creates a private connection to a specially configured server (or a cluster of servers). This now acts as a new starting point for all of your activity online. 

 

So if anyone were to try and track you down, they would see the VPN server’s IP address instead of yours as the origin of your data packets. Feeling safer already, right?

Encrypts your data on the fly

Another feature to make a VPN worth its salt is data encryption. Any information you exchange with the VPN servers is locked with a special key so no one - not even your ISP (Internet Service Provider) - has access to it. This means they can’t log or share it with third parties for advertising or any other purposes. 

 

And even if your data was intercepted by some evil genius, they would have to spend years and years deciphering it due to the complexity of the 256-bit encryption used by most VPN services. You might have nothing to hide, but it sure feels good to take control of your privacy like this.

Prevents your connection from resetting to a non-secure one

One more important gimmick reputable VPN companies use is a kill switch. If your device is suddenly disconnected from a remote VPN server (perhaps due to a failure on their side or an overprotective firewall on yours), it will default to the ISP settings, leaving your data exposed. 

 

If security is your priority, it’s best to kill the internet connection altogether until a safe one can be restored. This is precisely what an automatic kill switch does.

 

Now the benefits of VPN are quite evident, let’s go over some of the more common use cases.  

Why do I need a VPN?

You should definitely use a VPN if you want to:

  1. Prevent hacking
  2. Block malware, adware, and trackers
  3. Access the office intranet from home
  4. Stay safe on public Wi-Fi
  5. Bypass censorship
  6. Get access to better deals online
  7. Unlock content on streaming services
  8. Be safe when using torrents
  9. Prevent bandwidth throttling by your ISP
  10. Protect your identity while gaming

 

Now, let's take a closer look at these points.

Prevent hacking

If you’ve been hacked before, then you’ll know the value of having effective online security in place. Using a VPN will ensure every data packet a computer sends to a VPN server is encapsulated (placed inside another packet) and encrypted.

Block malware, adware, and trackers

It’s always worth doing your research and finding a VPN to suit your specific needs. So if you want to block malware, adware or any other kind of tracker, make sure you check the subscription plan details for anti-malware options. This way, intrusive ads won’t annoy you anymore, meaning you can enjoy a much cleaner and clearer web experience.

Access the office intranet from home

With more of us working from home than ever before, logging onto an office’s local network remotely is a necessity but can be a challenge due to security systems. However, setting up VPN remote access on a corporate laptop means a company’s confidential information can travel safely through a virtual tunnel.

Stay safe on public Wi-Fi 

If you rely on public Wi-Fi to get online, then you’re often putting you and your details at risk because of its security vulnerabilities. Installing a VPN can be an effective way of shoring up your online protection so Wi-Fi networks are totally safe to use.

Bypass censorship

Our media is increasingly tumultuous, full of disinformation and ‘fake news’. In this environment, it’s often worth getting information from different sources to ensure you get a balanced perspective and access to the full facts behind a story. Using a VPN to amend details of where you are can help bypass any restrictions due to location. Invest in one and get closer to the truth. 

Get access to better deals online

We all deserve a break. But, if you haven’t kept your browsing history private, anyone looking for cheap flights for a holiday may be stopped by website trackers reading their behavior. It means prices might be slightly higher, making a preferred destination harder to reach due to the expense. However, as soon as a VPN is on, then you become an anonymous stranger, a new client worthy of a discount offer. 

Unlock content on streaming services

Many of us are addicted to binge-watching favorite shows on Netflix. But what happens when you travel to a different country where the show isn’t on the menu? If you have a VPN, then you’ll be able change your location in the settings - and - voila! - you’ll never miss out on a favorite show again, no matter where you might be.

Be safe when using torrents

Torrents are a popular way of accessing content among many online users. The best way to stay safe when using them and keeping an internet connection private is via a VPN. This will stop an ISP discerning any torrent-related activity.

Prevent throttling by your ISP

Sometimes, down- and upload speeds can be on the slow side due to a service provider. Among some, intentional throttling - or slowing down a user’s connection - is commonly practiced. Especially with such network-intensive applications like torrents or gaming.

Protect your identity while gaming

If you’re an avid online gamer, then you might have been using a VPN service for years to keep  your IP address and internet activity from prying eyes. If you haven’t, then the question of: “Do I need a VPN?” could be answered if you feel vulnerable from being swatted while enjoying a streaming session. Invest in a VPN and keep your identity secure. 

 

The book by Knowledge Sourcing Intelligence called 'Virtual Private Network (VPN) Market – Forecasts from 2019 to 2024' states that the VPN market will reach over $50 billion by 2024. Considering today's circumstances: frequent identity theft episodes, political barricades, national firewalls, markets globalization, etc., the predicted market value seems more real than ever. 

 

However, if you have doubts about the common solutions, there are ways to protect your personal data without a VPN.

VPN alternatives

In case you aren’t sold on the whole VPN idea, there are other circumvention tools you can use. In a nutshell, most of them are either variations of the VPN technology or heavily based on it. The two best options are:

  1. Proxy servers
  2. Tor browser

What’s more?

Finally, we’d like to go over some topics people are often confused by.

Can you be tracked if you use a VPN?

A VPN does add an extra layer of protection, but you can still be tracked - especially if there’s someone on the other end with the necessary skills. The perfect security measure to shield you from all possible attacks on the internet does not exist and this includes VPNs. You might have shared personal information on social media, or malware could have been installed on your computer.  

 

While a VPN makes it extremely difficult for a data breach to occur, the best thing you can do is to use a combination of cybersecurity measures.

Are VPNs legal?

They are - in most democracies - but you should always research local laws and consult with the relevant authorities if necessary. In China, where the internet is heavily controlled by the state, VPN providers require a government license to operate legally. 

 

Before you turn to a VPN service, ask yourself this: “Am I going to use it for something that is legal on its own?” If the answer is “no”, then you should stop right there.

What does a VPN hide?

A VPN connection conceals your actual IP address and reroutes your traffic through a remote server, encrypting it on the way. However, the destination website or server doesn’t have the unique encryption keys your VPN server has created, so data will travel through this last segment with standard security parameters in place. 

What to do if my VPN is blocked?

It all depends on who blocked your VPN traffic and why. First, do a legality check. If blocking is initiated by your government, your employer, or your school, make sure you are not breaking any laws or agreements by using a VPN. If you’re safe there, try changing servers and protocols your VPN software provides. 

 

Most applications offer the choice of an OpenVPN, and many have obfuscated (Stealth VPN) servers available. This is a complex solution, capable of tricking the most advanced VPN blocking measures. 

How to change VPN location?

It should be fairly simple, provided you’ve paid for the right product. Find the corresponding menu and choose a server in the country of your preference. This will influence your network speed and might unlock streaming content or give you access to otherwise restricted resources.

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