VPN 101: how you can improve your online safety
Have you been the victim of online fraud in the recent past? Or perhaps you’ve been the unlucky victim of a ransomware attack, which locked down your computer until you paid off your attackers?
These kind of threats are multiplying in today’s world, but there is a way to protect our online safety: Virtual Private Networks.
Virtual Private Networks offer an effective line of defence against digital nasties, and they do a whole lot more than that as well. This article will offer a quick introduction to these invaluable apps, explaining what they are, how they work, and why you need one ASAP.
Introducing VPNs: What are they and how do they work?
Firstly, we need to briefly define what the term Virtual Private Networks means. Put simply, a Virtual Private Network will allow you to feed your web traffic through a third party network which exists wholly online (hence the ‘virtual’ part of the name).
But the key word in the title is ‘private’. That’s because VPNs encrypt your data and route your traffic through servers located across the world. This locks the data you send away in (almost) impenetrable packages. It also makes it very hard to trace your online identity.
Both of these properties make VPNs a strong defensive tool against cyber criminals and surveillance states alike.
However, we do need to express a quick word of caution. Not all VPNs are equally effective, so pay attention to expert analysis. For instance, our PIA VPN review discusses one leading provider which won’t let you down. But there are plenty of less reliable clients on the market.
Getting into details – how does a VPN actually work?
Most VPNs will have several key components, and each of them plays a key role in ensuring that the service is secure:
- Clients: Clients act as gateways into Virtual Private Networks. Good VPNs will offer apps for all major platforms, including Android and iOS smartphones. They should make it easy to locate and log onto servers while providing customisation options regarding encryption and browser add-ons.
- Encryption: As we mentioned above, encryption is a vital part of the VPN package. The best VPNs use a standard called AES (either 128 or 256-bit). This applies a ‘cipher’ to the data you send across the web, which jumbles it up into a form that bears no resemblance to the original form. The only way to unscramble this data is via a ‘key’, which is unique to each user and constantly changes. So whatever you send is virtually impossible to crack.
- Tunnelling protocols: In addition to basic encryption, VPNs use what are known as ‘protocols’ to create ‘tunnels’ between your computer or phone and the VPN’s servers. These protocols allow data to be authenticated and transmitted. Basically, this tells the network and the recipient where it needs to go and makes sure that a connection is established between you and your target website (or torrent partner).
- Servers: When you send information across a Virtual Private Network, it passes through the provider’s network of servers. These servers are optimised to handle VPN traffic, with efficient port set-ups and the capacity to deal with large data loads. Good providers will maintain 1000s of servers, allowing users to route their IP addresses through any location.
Why are VPNs so useful?
All of this might seem a bit abstract, but when you think about the real world uses of Virtual Private Networks, everything comes into focus.
As we alluded to earlier, Virtual Private Networks are a good way to protect yourself against certain online threats. Because they anonymise your identity, they make it tough for attackers to target your system via hijacking attacks. If you use your phone or laptop on public Wi-Fi networks, these attacks are a real risk, but VPNs make them much less likely.
VPNs also make it harder for phishers to track your activity. This reduces their ability to build the profiles needed to write effective phishing emails – which are a major way to extract personal details from targets.
But there’s more to Virtual Private Networks than pure security. For one thing, they shield users from forms of online surveillance.
Since the Snowden revelations emerged, web users have rightly become more concerned about official eavesdropping. VPNs provide the only real way route to anonymity. At the same time, they also provide protection for torrenters or TOR users against copyright enforcement investigations.
If you regularly use Netflix, you may have stumbled upon another key use for VPNs: beating geo-blockers. These blocks are routinely used to segment global audiences, locking away content like movies and TV shows. But Virtual Private Networks can render these tactics useless, giving you unrestricted streaming access.
Make sure you choose the right VPN for your needs
So, if you want to stay safe online, the answer is clear: you need a reliable Virtual Private Network installed and ready to go. However, before you install anything, remember one thing. Poor quality VPNs are almost as bad as having no protection at all, so it’s vital to choose a provider you can trust.