What is a VPN and the Importance of Having One?

Security and privacy concerns are a constant in the news. Everything from security breaches involving stolen identities to intrusive surveillance from state entities make headlines day after day. One of the best ways to combat these concerns is by using a Virtual Private Network, or VPN for short. This technology dates back to the earlier days of the world wide web in 1996 when the peer-to-peer tunneling protocol was developed and set the foundation for modern VPNs.

What is a VPN?

A VPN is essentially a private network running through a public network such as a wifi hotspot at a coffee shop by using encryption methods on the data being sent. This makes it almost impossible for anyone who intercepts the data to be able to read it since it is encrypted. Meaning if an internet service provider, government agency, or criminal hacker wanted to intercept the data they would still have no idea what the data actually is because of the encryption being used. It would be the same as sending an encoded message through the post office. Even if someone was to open the envelope, the message itself is still in a code.

Why You Need to Start Using a VPN

If tech companies harvesting private data and reselling it is a concern, a VPN solves this problem because any data sent would be encrypted with its true value, private data, hidden in encryption making it worthless. This also means a criminal hacker can't pull a credit card number or social security number out of it. Many companies rely on VPN's for the same reason when remote employees need to connect to company servers. Reading emails from a coffee shop can be secure by using the company's VPN. If someone wanted to intercept the data being sent through the coffee shop's public wifi connection, the email messages would be unreadable thanks to the encryption used on the company's VPN.

In parts of the world, researching unpopular political opinions can result in prison time. VPN's can be used to prevent this by encrypting any data being sent back and forth but are often not enough. This is because internet service providers can still see where data is being sent to and from even if they don't know what exactly is being sent. The same way an encoded message needs a delivery address on the outside of the envelope to reach its destination, data on the internet needs an IP address to be delivered or sent to. This brings up an important point about VPN's: they do not make someone anonymous on the internet. If someone is doing something illegal it can still be determined who is doing it by tracing IP addresses, along with a few other bits of information, back to them or the computer which was used. So in essence, a VPN is used to protect the information being sent, not the person sending or receiving it.

VPN Services for Personal and Business

That being said, VPN's are still extremely useful for personal use for say accessing a computer at home while on a business trip securely and are easily obtainable from a VPN provider. All that is required after payment is downloading the VPN provider's software client and connecting to their servers by using a user name and password, typically provided by them, to log on as easily as someone would into an email account. A couple things to consider when choosing a VPN provider is do they keep logs of the data being sent by a customer and where in the world their VPN servers are located. Server location is important because having to connect to a server in on the other side of the world might affect connection speeds. Keeping logs of customer's data is important if privacy is a concern because those logs can still be subpoenaed by authorities.

Businesses will typically require a more robust setup than a personal user because they will have multiple people connecting to a specific server at the same time. This can be accomplished with free software like OpenVPN and the know how that goes into setting it up or services can also be purchased from companies that provide setup for you.

Virtual Private Networks are an essential tool, either personally or from a business perspective, to provide data security in this modern environment.