What Is A VPN? Here’s Everything You Need To Know
Are you still not using a VPN? Maybe you should be.
This year has already taken a rapid nosedive past the midway point and is quickly coming to a close. So far this year, though, we’ve already experienced record-setting numbers of cybercrimes, security flaws, and data breaches resulting in higher-than-ever numbers of compromised consumer records.
And yet, with so much attention to the crimes and their aftermath, too many people still aren’t using the readily available security tools that could help keep them safe.
Even though the data backs up the claim that users aren’t installing antivirus or anti malware software as much as they should, there are even more tools that can protect the public from many forms of cyberattack.
A VPN is just such a tool, and here’s everything you need to know about them.
What does VPN mean?
VPN stands for “virtual private network,” and it basically serves as your own personal tunnel onto the internet.
It can turn any public network into a private one, and turn your own private home or business network into an even more secure pathway for your online activities.
Essentially, it blocks others from seeing what you’re doing, when you’re connected, where you’ve connected from, and whether you’re even online or not.
To say there’s a stigma associated with VPN use would be blowing it out of proportion, but there’s definitely a mindset against installing them.
For starters, some users mistakenly believe that “only people with something to hide” would use a VPN. Those users aren’t seeing the benefits of keeping a hacker out of your online banking app, but rather confuse the server rerouting as an attempt to cover your tracks while engaging in illegal activity. Sure, a Dark Web commodities dealer may want a VPN to block any attempts at following his sales, but a parent who’s logging into her son’s school lunch account to put money in needs just as much protection.
Also, there’s a very misguided notion that downloading a VPN somehow alerts the government to the fact that you plan to do things you don’t want others to see. Maybe years ago, that would have been a fun conspiracy theory, but in today’s climate of cyberattacks, it’s simply not a problem. Many major-name security software developers are offering VPNs for even the most harmless, consumer-level internet user.
What Does a VPN Do?
A VPN protects your information, your identity, and your activity by blocking outsiders from seeing it.
If a hacker has installed a keylogger on your computer, for example, a VPN should effectively prevent that information from being transmitted back to the hacker. If you have an undisclosed malware infection that is rooting around in your computer for personal data, it can prevent anyone from discovering what it picks up.
Even better, VPNs reroute your internet activity to different servers located around the world. Your activity also isn’t tracked or logged by most VPN providers, although some only encrypt that information. Finally, your VPN either masks your IP address while you’re online or actually generates a fake one-time-use IP address.
All of these factors combine to prevent your search history or internet activity from being used against you in some way.
Why Use a VPN?
The original function of a VPN has evolved into so many more uses than just keeping people from knowing what you’re doing.
First, if you travel abroad, a VPN will let you connect as though you were in a different geographic location. That might sound very James Bond or Mission: Impossible, but actually, it also means you can still watch your favorite Netflix show while you’re in Germany on business.
On top of that, a VPN can keep adware and spyware from tracking your internet activity; that might seem like a small potatoes issue, but if you’re searching for something sensitive like cancer treatments or divorce attorneys, the last thing you need is for ads for those things to flood the sidebars of your screen when your teenagers log in.
Now, VPNs are also all-encompassing security options that do everything from block keyloggers to prevent malware attacks. They can open up content that is banned due to geographic restrictions, but can also help you keep your internet service provider from monitoring, selling, and restricting your internet use.
Even better, with the abundance of public wifi connections out there, a solid and inexpensive VPN can protect your connections and online activity. Many of the major providers even cover multiple devices under one subscription; you can secure your smartphone, tablet, laptop, and desk-bound work station with the same account. The mobile app versions of many of these VPN titles mean you can “set it and forget it” when using an unlimited subscription.
How to Use a VPN?
Depending on the device you’re using, deploying a VPN is really straightforward.
If your antivirus software doesn’t already have a VPN as part of its security suite, then you’ll first need to find a really worthwhile title. Expect to pay a subscription fee based on the amount of data you need—from small amounts to unlimited—and also how many devices you want to cover, from one up to as many as ten. If you’re a typical internet user, you might want to just bite the bullet and pay a one-time annual fee to have constant coverage for the year.
Once you install a mobile app, depending on your device platform, you may be able to simply go to the settings and tell your phone or tablet to look for the VPN and then launch it automatically every time you connect. For PCs, laptops, and Mac machines, you’ll need to follow the developer’s instructions for installation and launch. Don’t worry, it’s a very straightforward process and the steps will be listed on-screen.
Once you’ve installed your VPN, you may need to switch it on and off manually, like if you’re on a limited data plan, for example. If so, it’s usually as simple as opening the app and pressing an on/off button, then you’re good to go.
Yep, it really is that easy.
But Which VPN Is Right for You?
VPN developers have a few key diffrences that you need to be aware of. Fortunately, this handy guide outlining our Top Five VPN's can help you determine which one is right for your particular needs.
Many of the key differences come down to things like function: does the VPN actually provide an anonymous IP address, or simply mask it? Does it only encrypt your activity while still logging and storing it, or does it actively not track your use in the first place? Those kinds of differences matter, depending on what you want to keep other people from seeing.
You’ll also need to consider your usage. Do you only want to use a VPN for limited time while using banking apps, etc.? If so, you can get away with a cheaper plan, but if you want to stay secured and connected all the time, you’ll need to find an unlimited usage plan (which, for reference, can be a lot cheaper than you’d expect).
How many devices do you need to cover? If you own a laptop, a tablet, and a mobile device, chances are you’re better off with a multi-device plan for better peace of mind. If you’re an owner of various Internet-of-Things devices in your home –we’re talking colour-changing lightbulbs, smart doorbells, that sort of thing– you might want to find a VPN that offers router support to increase security across your entire home.
Above all, a VPN provides you with the security mindset you need in order to take proactive steps. When you deploy all the tools at your disposal, you can rest easy, knowing that you did everything you could to keep hackers and identity thieves at bay.
Look into your options and choose the right software for your needs, but make sure you protect yourself at every turn.