VPNPrivacy invasion online is a big deal, especially considering how mobile we are these days with our technology. One of the best ways to ensure that work conducted by telecommuters or any other web browsing you do that you’d like to keep to yourself remains secure is to use an encrypted network connection. However, that’s not always possible for travelers or people who don’t have access to their own secure Internet connection. The advent of virtual private networks, commonly known as a VPN, has helped bridge that gap by providing a secure connection for people no matter where they are. Whether you’re familiar with VPNs due to using one for school or work, or you’re brand new to the concept and want to learn, our guide will outline everything you need to know about how these networks can add an extra layer of security to your Internet usage.

What is a VPN and who uses them?

A virtual private network creates an encrypted connection that ensures security regardless of what kind of network you’re using, be it public Wi-Fi or the guest network at a friend’s house. The VPN functions like a private tunnel that allows all of your network traffic to pass through securely without allowing anyone outside to see what you’re doing. While there are numerous modes of VPN, the two more common VPNs you’re going to run into areĀ remote-access and site-to-site. The first type requires a VPN client program downloaded to your computer or mobile device that allows you to connect to a “gateway” for your traffic to pass through securely, while the second is used to specifically connect an entire network in one location to another (such as a small office branch to a large data center) — meaning the information will only travel securely to and from those locations. A single gateway is set up for all devices in the remote location to use for site-to-site VPNs, so users don’t need VPN clients.

VPN (Virtual Private Network) - Illustration Concept in Flat Des

The locks in this image represent VPNs, as they ensure the information is securely transported from one device to the other.

VPNs are used by all kinds of people, for all kinds of reasons. Businesses and schools use them to keep employee or student activity secure when on the go, but plenty of people use VPNs for personal day-to-day Internet use as well. VPNs are even used by citizens or journalists in countries like China where Internet access is monitored or filtered by the government, or otherwise insecure to communicate and access blocked websites. Some VPNs can be used for free, while most offer plans ranging from $5 to $15/month.

VPNs can benefit users in a number of ways

Using a VPN, whether for business or personal use, is a great way to protect your security as well as your privacy no matter where you are. Since more and more people are using mobile devices to do everything from send emails and check in on their bank account to accessing sensitive documents and even filing their taxes on the go, the question of how to maintain security against would-be hackers and other malicious entities is a big one. Public Wi-Fi networks are notoriously insecure, and you can’t even trust the pay-to-connect networks set up on airlines and in hotels to be encrypted. That’s where a VPN can come in, bridging that gap and ensuring your activity can’t be monitored, as well as protecting you from malware and hackers. Employers who provide their employees with VPN access can be certain that company files and servers are as secure as if the employee was connecting from right inside the office.

Another reason many people use a VPN for their personal use is to protect themselves from being spied on or noticed by their Internet service providers or other entities while engaging in certain activities, such as downloading/torrenting files and accessing the dark web. VPNs can also be used to trick websites into thinking you are visiting from another country or part of the world than you’re actually in, enabling you to get around region-based content blocks (e.g., for video streaming). These activities are generally not legal, however, so it’s important to remember that even if a VPN helps you perform certain activities online with more privacy and security, you are still liable for your actions. What’s more, some VPN services specifically ban peer-to-peer file sharing, so be sure to read the terms and conditions first.

There are some potential drawbacks

Since VPNs work by rerouting your Internet traffic, performance can be slow, especially when it comes to anything that uses a lot of bandwidth such as streaming. You can usually pay extra for faster service, but it’s still something to think about, especially if you opt to use a free VPN software. Additionally, as a result of people using VPNs to get around regional content blocks, some popular web content providers like Netflix are now blocking users from accessing their sites while running a VPN client. This can be frustrating to deal with, and it’s possible more sites and governments will follow suit to protect their IP restrictions from being bypassed. You might find yourself unable to access some of your favorite sites while using your VPN, forced to choose between privacy and convenience. Cost is another factor, though in general VPNs tend to cost about the same as a latte from your favorite coffee shop per month or less.

Research your options before committing

It’s important to assess the reputation of a VPN service before handing over your money, so do your research and try to choose a service with a free trial so you can try before you buy. Some Internet security software companies are getting in on the action, with Avast’s SecureLine VPN being one of the top options. Also, remember that no security method is bulletproof, so even if you use a VPN, you should still take other precautions such as utilizing strong passwords, enabling two-step authentication wherever possible and investigating the security and encryption options of the cloud storage and other services you use.

Keeping yourself secure online isn’t a simple task, but technology is advancing as quickly as it can to keep up with the demands of an ever-changing cyber landscape. Follow our privacy blog to keep up to date with the best ways to protect yourself online and off.