To put it simply, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a service or program that allows a device to connect to a secure offsite server over a network using an encrypted, “tunnel-like” connection. It allows the user’s IP address to be masked, providing a layer of all-important privacy and anonymity. Besides, the encryption of the connection is generally of such a high-grade that any data transmitted can be considered perfectly safe. Originally used for businesses, companies offering VPN services to consumers started to form, realizing the immense security benefits that users can reap from the service.
They are used by everyone from families at home who want to make sure no one can track their online habits to a journalist who doesn’t want people or governments to know where they are. Travelers love them in particular due to the safety they grant one on unknown networks. The underlying thread is protection, and running a quality VPN on your computer is a surefire way to make yourself safer and protect your personal information.
Original Business Applications
If you are wondering where the concept of consumer VPNs came from, or why they’re often referred to as “consumer” VPNs, then you should know that they originally were used for business purposes. Companies needed a secure way to allow remote workers and executives to access office data, and a VPN was a much cheaper alternative than a leased line connection. After the first wave had been installed, businesses realized the levels of security and connectivity VPNs gave remote employees. They only grew in popularity from there.
Many businesses today still use Virtual Private Networks or technology based off of VPNs, and business owners and decision makers at businesses should read more about the subject if they aren’t already knowledgeable about the matter. You would want an IT professional to set one up, but you can learn a lot from reading up on the subject and examining your options. It could be your best line of defense against corporate espionage or a data leak like the ones you see in the news.
The Main Threats: Empowering Yourself against Cybercriminals
One of the main tips that the Stop. Think. Connect. Campaign espouses is to be wary of WiFi hotspots. This is with good reason, as there is a particular type of hacker on these networks that you need to watch out for. They will lurk on public networks, usually in cafes or public offices, and they will use “sniffer software” or set up a fake network with a name designed to trick you. It is estimated that identity theft happens to 5 percent of people each year, and you have the ability to prevent becoming one of those people.
Of course, your main defense and tool remain your routines and caution. If you see a suspicious network in a restaurant, ask an employee about it to see if it is legitimate. Check to see if a network is encrypted. You should only seriously consider using a public network without other protections in place if the network has WPA2 protection on it. Finally, err on the side of caution. Your data plan has a purpose, and many activities can wait until you are safely home.
In addition to caution, however, a VPN is the best and sometimes the only way that you can protect yourself against this particular threat. The encryption and “tunnel” that the VPN uses makes it so that any hacker using a specialized setup will see nothing concerning your data use. The most that they would ever see is information that says you are using a VPN. At that point nearly any hacker will move on to a different target, and those without any sense would need years before they cracked the encryption.
Online security and online privacy go hand in hand. Hackers cannot take what they cannot find. A VPN will mask your IP address by having all traffic routed through the VPN server, making it appear that the address is that of the server you are using. As an IP address can be used to track down your physical location, a VPN will help you stay anonymous. In some cases, more details can be found from the IP address, but the city in which you live is enough information to make many people nervous. You can protect yourself by scrambling your location with a VPN.
Hackers can also log information and habits tracking data usage via IP address. Many websites or hackers will record your IP address and log it to take note of your browsing habits. Malicious organizations might do the same. Privacy is the best form of security in these instances, and its best to just let these organizations think you’re browsing the internet in Qatar.
Finally, some hackers or cybercriminals with a grudge might attempt to launch a DDoS attack on you, effectively knocking out your system (or website if you are a website owner). This is done via targeting an IP address, and so a DDoS attack will just be routed to the VPN server you are using, keeping your system safe from any IP address related issues.
Aspects of a VPN Service
A VPN is a complex tool with many different parts to it. You need to know what other people are using and what different numbers, features, and statistics are important when judging them. Here are the most important factors that you will need to check out when procuring a VPN:
The security settings and the level of encryption are the first things you should take a look at when inspecting a VPN service. While any VPN service will help protect you from cybercriminals and other online threats more than not having one at all, there are vast differences between VPNs that you should know about.
The minimum standard that any good VPN should have today is Advanced Encryption Standard 256-bit encryption, which is currently the standard used by governments to protect classified information. It will protect you from just about anything cybercriminals can think of. Anything less could be vulnerable to an attack with enough power behind it. Anything more could be sluggish and difficult to use unless you have a specific need for it.
You will also want to keep in mind the tunneling protocol(s) used by the VPN to keep you safe. The tunneling protocol makes up much of what keeps you anonymous while using the service. While the science and details behind it can get complicated, you just need to know that for the sake of security that PPTP still has some security weaknesses and that L2TP (a great tunneling protocol) paired with IPsec (which encrypts the data) is a great option for any service. SSTP is also a great option, but is only available for Windows users.
Server Quantity and Locations
Any good service will have a high number of servers available for you to use whenever you need them. A good service provider will never find itself running slowly, and while there is no magic number, there should be a sufficient number of servers to support its user base. Check to see if a service has any expansion plans and how other customers react to a service.
The number of countries and regions that are available for you to connect to are important as well. If a user chooses a country too far away, they risk losing connection speed, and different laws and restrictions regarding internet use in different countries may require you to switch to a different region in order to stay safe or use the internet normally. Never use a VPN that doesn’t have a server in your home country. Additionally, you can easily find a VPN with servers in at least 50 other countries. VPN providers are usually quick to advertise this information, so don’t worry about searching it out.
A slow VPN is unusable, forcing you into either taking a security risk by not using it or simply not using the internet (which isn’t always an option). Only you know the speeds that are acceptable to you, but keep in mind that you need to protect yourself at all times. You can use this guide by the Federal Communications Commission to help you determine what you might need.
Under no circumstances do you want to deal with a VPN that will throttle your connection or otherwise place a limit on your connection. There are already enough issues pressing on your speed already, such as the limit of the network you are using and any server delay caused by the VPN. Some VPNs might be more expensive, but just remember that your time and your security are valuable as well.
Choosing a Service
Picking the best service provider is an important decision for both your long-term data security and for the value you can get out of your device. A service that has the minimum standard of encryption, offers a high number of servers, and runs at acceptable connection speeds is the best place to start, but you will also want to look at VPN reviews to make sure that every last one of your security needs are met.
Secure Thoughts: ExpressVPN the VPN for you? Our Review.
Setting One Up for Personal Use
If you have just signed up to a Virtual Private Network service and are wondering how to get started, you will want to take the following steps:
- Check to see if there are any instructions that the VPN service provider gives you. Many have some sort of application that you download to your computer and activate. You may need to login, but the app will take you from there.
- If there is no application, the VPN might be extension or website-based, in which case you will want to follow the instructions on the website or app store page. Be sure that you know how to uninstall or delete it if you find it unsatisfactory (these kinds of VPNs often have the most problems or are the most questionable).
- In rare circumstances, you may need to access or set up a VPN connection manually through the network settings on your computer or smartphone. It is a simple process, and all you will generally need are any login details and other information that your VPN provider will certainly give you.
- Once you have a VPN set up on your computer, you are going to want to test it out to see how it is working and whether it meets your expectations. Try to stream a movie or watch a video online to see if your connection can keep up, as with quality VPNs you shouldn’t have a problem. Also, visit a website that will tell you what your IP address is, so you can make a comparison to when you did not have one.
Virtual Private Networks are a fantastic tool that you can use in conjunction with other programs and habits to keep yourself safe online. There are variations, and you should educate yourself on them before making any decision regarding if you should use one and which one you should use. You can look into it right now and expand your options right now if you wish to. It is entirely up to you.
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