A virtual private network (VPN) is an Internet security service that creates an encrypted connection between user devices and one or more servers. VPNs can be used to securely connect a user to a company’s internal network or the public internet.
Businesses typically use a VPN to give remote employees access to internal applications and data – or to create a single shared network between multiple office locations. In both of these cases the goal is to prevent web traffic and proprietary data from being exposed on the open Internet.
How does a VPN work?
The process of routing your traffic through a VPN masks your internet protocol (IP address – the specific number that is assigned to your device when it’s connected to a local network) which can otherwise contain a surprising amount of personal information – like approximate location and the name of your ISP.
With a VPN enabled if someone decides to look up your IP address, they’ll see your VPN server’s location instead of yours.
Virtual Private Networks explained
If you’re looking for actual internet anonymity, consider getting a virtual private network. Did you know your internet service provider (ISP) tracks every click you make to compile anonymous browsing logs to sell to advertising companies or government agencies? Unfortunately, your browser’s Incognito/Private mode only clears your history, searches, cookies, and login details – but it won’t hide or secure your connection from your ISP and other prying eyes. And if you’re using an unsecured public WiFi connection – you’re basically inviting hackers to view, steal, or manipulate your data.
Prior to the pandemic, the main selling point of VPNs was their ability to improve their users’ online privacy and security. However, virtual private networks can be used for more than just connecting to a server for privacy reasons. They can also be used by employees to connect to their own company’s private network. Businesses commonly use VPN firewalls to prevent unapproved people from accessing their private servers, but the same software can be used to allow employees entry to a company’s server with the proper login credentials to access the network from a home desktop or laptop. Essentially you can use a VPN to connect to your work desktop in order to access the same files, programs, and applications from home.
When you’re connected to a public WiFi network, this is perhaps the most important time to use a VPN, even if it’s password-protected. If you don’t connect to a VPN while on a public network, it isn’t difficult for nefarious hackers to crack WiFi Protected Access 2 (WPA2) encryption – which is the most commonly used security protocol in coffee shops, airports, hotels, subway stations, fast food restaurants, and more. Once they crack the network, these nefarious parties use network vulnerabilities for WiFi eavesdropping or “man-in-the-middle attacks” – when a cybercriminal intercepts a transmission between the user and a website at a poorly secured WiFi hotspot. If your connection has been intercepted, these hackers will now have access to your information any time you log in to a financial account as long as you’re still connected to the same network.