What is a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and Why Do I Need It?

It’s very likely that you are aware or have heard of the term VPN (Virtual Private Network), although you probably don’t use one. If that is indeed the case, it might be entirely prudent to use a VPN at some point, even if you aren’t doing so right now.

Virtual Private Network Explained

World Wide Web
World Wide Web

A Virtual Private Network or VPN is essentially a group of computers working together as a private network that extends to a public network. These days, there is no bigger public network than the Internet.

A physical network of computers at a workplace or a private home usually involves the sharing of files, folders, and other resources across multiple computers. A ‘virtual’ private network could be understood as a virtual clone of a physical network. However, a VPN does a lot more than the simple task of sharing files and resources.

Any good VPN service provider offers encrypted connectivity options to the internet. Computers and mobile devices that you connect to the internet via a VPN service will in most cases create a secure and encrypted tunnel that will protect your privacy.

VPN and its Many Applications

Over a decade ago, VPNs were originally installed as servers by companies to enable employees to work from home. To this day, businesses connect to data centers via VPNs and employees can gain access to a files and resources on a network even when they aren’t on the same LAN (local area network). A VPN connection (here) works as an encrypted, secure tunnel between the employee’s computer and the company’s VPN server.

There are plenty of ways in which your computer or mobile device can be used over a secure connection, which a VPN encrypts to ensure nobody is snooping in on you. They are and by no means limited to:

Embracing Privacy

Privacy in a post-Snowden world has struck a chord in mainstream consciousness like no other event before. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that some of your own internet habits has been tracked and monitored in the past.

Insecure public Wi-Fi networks at the airport or a café are just some of the many avenues where cyber-criminals, state surveillance, and other such operators keep a watchful eye on what you do online. However, a VPN connection takes care of your privacy and online safety by encrypting your network traffic and keeping you safe while you’re online.

Avoiding Censorship

Activists and journalists routinely use VPNs to circumvent state censorship implemented by geo-blocking. VPNs were and are to this day, hugely successful in countries with internet censorship. For instance, the infamous “great firewall” of China is routinely bypassed by users in China through the implementation of VPNs.

Safe Downloading

Those with a habit of downloading data through P2P (peer-to-peer) applications such as BitTorrent clients and other means will particularly appreciate the privacy provided by VPNs. With encrypted web traffic, inbound and outbound transfers during P2P sharing cannot be monitored by your ISP nor a trigger-happy law-firm.

Being a Global Citizen

We don’t blame you for being annoyed that popular music-streaming services aren’t available everywhere in the world. Netflix still isn’t available in Asia nor Africa, with only certain parts of Western Europe having access to the popular video-streaming service. Perhaps it’s YouTube that’s blocking certain videos, blaming your geographical location for it.

All of these hindrances and more can be circumvented altogether with a VPN connection that is routable through multiple server locations all over the world.

In many ways, all of the above factors represent a means to internet freedom.

It has to be reiterated that the most significant perk of having a VPN connection is the encryption it brings to your internet-connected devices, ensuring your privacy and security online.

Images from Shutterstock.

Samburaj is the contributing editor at Hacked and keeps tabs on science, technology and cyber security.