In the simplest terms, a VPN creates a secure, encrypted connection—which can be thought of as a tunnel—between your computer and a server operated by the VPN service. In a professional setting, this tunnel effectively makes you part of the company’s network, as if you were physically sitting in the office.
While you’re connected to a VPN, all your network traffic passes through this protected tunnel, and no one—not even your ISP—can see your traffic until it exits the tunnel from the VPN server and enters the public internet. If you make sure to only connect to websites secured with HTTPS, your data will continue to be encrypted even after it leaves the VPN.
Think about it this way: If your car pulls out of your driveway, someone can follow you and see where you are going, how long you are at your destination, and when you are coming back. They might even be able to peek inside your car and learn more about you. With a VPN service, you are essentially driving into a closed parking garage, switching to a different car, and driving out, so that no one who was originally following you knows where you went.
VPN services, while tremendously helpful, are not foolproof. There’s no magic bullet (or magic armor) when it comes to security. A determined adversary can almost always breach your defenses in one way or another. Using a VPN can’t help if you unwisely download ransomware on a visit to the Dark Web, or if you foolishly give up your data to a phishing attack. What a VPN can do is to protect you against mass data collection and the casual criminal vacuuming up user data for later use. It can also protect your privacy by making it harder for advertisers to figure out who and where you are.
Have you become so comfortable with the idea of your private data traveling over Wi-Fi that you’ve stopped worrying about the safety of that data—and about who else might be snooping on it, or even stealing it for nefarious purposes? If so, you’re sadly in the majority, and you ought to consider using a viritual private network, or VPN.
That attitude to the safety and privacy of personal data represents a huge online security problem. Public Wi-Fi networks, which are ubquitous and convenient, are unfortunately also highly convenient for attackers looking to compromise your personal information. How do you know, for example, that “starbucks_wifi_real” is actually the Wi-Fi network for the coffee shop? Anyone could have created that network, and they may have done so in order to lure victims into disclosing personal information over it. In fact, a popular security researcher prank is to create a network with the same name as a free, popular service and see how many devices will automatically connect because it appears safe.
First and foremost, using a VPN prevents anyone on the same network access point (or anywhere else) from intercepting your web traffic in a man-in-the-middle attack. This is especially handy for travelers and for those using public Wi-Fi networks, such as web surfers at hotels, airports, and coffee shops. Someone on the same network, or the person in control of the network you’re using, could conceivably intercept your information while you’re connected.
VPNs also cloak your computer’s actual IP address, hiding it behind the IP address of the VPN server you’re connected to. IP addresses are distributed based on location, so you can estimate someone’s location simply by looking at their IP address. And while IP addresses may change, it’s possible to track someone across the internet by watching where the same IP address appears. Using a VPN makes it harder for advertisers (or spies, or hackers) to track you online.
VPNs are great, but it’s just as important to know what a VPN can and cannot do. A tool is only useful when it’s used correctly, after all.
While it hides your IP address, a VPN is not a true anonymization service. For that, you’ll want to access the Tor network, which will almost certainly slow down your connection. While a VPN tunnels your web traffic to a VPN server, Tor bounces around your traffic through several volunteer nodes making it much, much harder to track. Using Tor also grants access to hidden Dark Web sites, which a VPN simply cannot do. That said, some services, such as NordVPN, offer Tor access on specific servers. IVPN offers a similar feature called multi-hop VPN, which lets you route your web traffic in tricky ways.
Using a VPN will prevent most kinds of DNS attacks that would redirect you to a phishing page, but a regular old page made to look like a legit one in order to trick you into entering your data can still work. Some VPNs, and most browsers, are pretty good about blocking phishing pages, but this attack still claims too many victims to be ignored. Use common sense and be sure to verify that websites are what they say they are by looking carefully at the URL and always visiting HTTPS sites.
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