What is a VPN?
VPN stands for virtual private networking.
A VPN allows you to browse the internet much more securely – by encrypting all your data and making everything you do on your VPN conected devices is protected.
VPNs protect all your online data- such as the information of the websites you visit, your passwords, your bank details and any personal information you would ever enter onto a website.
This means that you can browse websites or send data to anyone else, without any other party being able to see what you are doing – wheras- without a VPN, your ISP or broadband provider, and any hacker, can easily gain control of all your data and confidential information.
How do VPNs work?
VPNs create a layer of security between you and your device (your phone/laptop/tablet), and the internet.
Normally, when you connect to the internet, you first connect via your ISP (your internet or broadband provider), and your ISP then connects you to any websites you visit. There are many downsides to this:
ISPs can set limits on how much data you can access and then charge you for going over. They can also see all of the websites and data that you enter, so you have no privacy – which is especially a problem with ISPs as they have no interest or obligation to ensure your privacy. It is also possible for ISPs to be hacked, and your data to be leaked that way, or for them even to sell your data on to the Government or third parties.
Once you have a VPN connected, you still connect to the internet via your ISP/broadband provider, but then as soon as you are connected, your VPN will connect (usually automatically). The VPN adds a privacy screen between you, and anyone else on the interent, so that no one else (including hackers) can see exactly where you are browsing or what details you are entering.
Once you are connected to a VPN, your data becomes fully encrypted, as does any data that you share with a third party. This means your data is in a format, that can’t be read by hackers, or anyone else who would have access to your web history.
Once your data is encrypted it is almost impossible for a hacker or anyone else to decrypt or read – this means that a hacker won’t be able to see your financial, browsing or personal information, such as any private keys or passwords you would enter online.
Without a VPN, every time you enter your bank card details, passwords, your private keys for your crypto wallets, your browsing history, or any other personal information, you are at risk of hackers gaining access to those details.
So long as you check that your VPN is connected before you open a website or access your email, you should be safe.
A VPN also hides your IP address, so anyone searching, would only see an IP address given to you by the VPN provider. With a VPN, you can also choose to change the location it shows for your browser. So for example, if you’re in the UK and want to watch Netflix USA, you can change your VPN so that your computer appears to be in America.
Important note- if your computer is already compromised by a malware, a VPN can’t protect you, so it is important to also have other security measures in place.
Why Do I need a VPN?
With the amount of cybercrime, scams, and credit card crime on the internet increasing every day, as well as the number of parties wanting access to your financial and confidential information, it is now essential for anyone to have a VPN to be able to browse the internet or check emails safely.
Online Security is one of the biggest challenges today and fortunes are being spent on trying to protect individuals and companies from online fraud and hacks. The minute you get connected to the internet, it is possible for any hacker to break into your data or computer, and you can quickly be affected by a whole range of security threats.
Hackers constantly try newer ways to carry out a security breach. This means that any information you send or receive could be intercepted, read and even manipulated.
Security solutions such as antivirus, anti-malware, firewall setups are all useful and help protect you to some degree, but they have their limitations and can’t be used to prevent such security breach. The best solution to such problems is, to use a VPN.
VPNs secure your data transfer to the outside world over the internet because everything you transfer is over an encrypted channel or a secure tunnel. This basically allows no room for hackers to decrypt any information.
All that a hacker can see is some encrypted character, difficult to decipher. VPN provides more security because a hacker will never get to know which website or chat you are getting connected with. So along with your data, your browsing information is also secure. Any data that travels between your computer and your VPN server is encrypted – which helps prevent you being hacked or any of your private data- such as passwords- being able to be seen by hackers.
Firewalls have the ability to monitor and restrict incoming and outgoing traffic. But firewalls cannot monitor or encrypt traffic between two channels. This is where VPN comes into the picture and adds more protection to your data.
While you remain online, there are so many ways your information is shared across different marketing channels. And all of this happens without your knowledge. For example, it has become extremely easy for e-commerce websites to employ marketing strategies based on your personal information. Simple analytics tools are used over your personal information to show trends on your online behaviour. These trends eventually help e-commerce websites and other online sites to market their products according to your preferences.
With a VPN, you can ensure your privacy is not at stake. When you use VPN, your personal information or IP address cannot be identified. This only shows the VPN provider IP address.
There are some web proxies which can protect your identity, but they send information about the original IP to the client. With a VPN you can prevent this.
Most companies and businesses have mandatory VPN access, to enable employees to safely connect to their internal networks for remote working.
Also, any time you connect to another computer via a remote-sharing screen, such as for getting your computer fixed remotely, you are opening yourself up to potential security threats. With a VPN, the data and connections can be monitored and secured.
VPNs can be used to share and files and can help you know that any files you receive should also be safe.
With VPN you can access websites in complete anonymity. Without a VPN, your IP address can be seen while connecting to the website, and your online movements can be traced and tracked back to you. With a VPN, the VPN service provider IP will be seen while accessing the website. This way, you can maintain your identity anonymously.
An Internet Service Provider (ISP) or network provider such as public Wi-Fi can see all your unencrypted data. If you are using a VPN, this data remains secured and can’t be read by any network provider.
With a VPN, you can access blocked websites or bypassing Internet filters. This is mostly used in countries with internet censorship, to visit restricted sites, or websites that have country restrictions.
Some countries impose certain restrictions over internet usage with respect to which sites can be accessed within a certain geographical location.
Also, some companies have policies to prevent access to certain websites. In order to securely bypass such access restrictions, you can use a VPN.
While VPN allows to bypass access restrictions, they also allow you to impose certain access restrictions.
So if a company wants only certain secure connections to access a specific location containing their private resources, with VPN, this restriction can be added.
So, with VPN you can change the access restrictions as per your need.
VPNs let you choose which country’s IP you connect you. Not only is this useful for those living in countries where internet is restricted, but this feature seems to be most popular with those wanting to connect to Netflix USA, for people living in other countries. We’re sure there may be many other reasons for wanting to change your country’s IP, but Netflix USA seems to be the most common reason we’ve heard!
Sometimes accessing specific websites over geographically different locations can be slow or can cause constant network breakdowns.
Suppose you are accessing a website through a different geographical location, and if you are in the middle of a payment transaction. There are risks of network drop offs, which can terminate your payment.
With VPN, you can use the same geographical location and access the website. This will ensure no drop offs in the network.
Additionally, since all transactions over VPN are encrypted, your transactions are secure.
Once VPN is set up, it requires low maintenance and network surveillance is no longer a concern. This means you don’t have to worry about anyone tracking your movements or being able to see any of your data or passwords or private keys, so you can browse online stress-free. It also prevents the risk of any such hack-related problems happening, which could potentially save you a lot of time and money down the line.
Some ISPs throttle users’ bandwidth. With VPNs you can avoid this and enjoy faster speeds, as the ISP will never be able to see how much data you’re using from the IP they assign to you.
VPNs were initially developed for companies and businesses to be able to communicate safely with each other via their private networks.
For businesses, there are many benefits to having a VPN, and for most companies, having a VPN is an absolute necessity, to make sure their corporate information is kept safe.
The specific benefits of having a VPN for companies are:
Any company data such as financials, potential purchases, mergers, or targets or even information about salaries and outgoings are kept confidential
Company email systems are safer. Whilst you would want a separate email encryption system, having a VPN ensures that any documents and files sent over email are also safe and can’t be hacked
Having a VPN is essential for remote workers to be able to log into the system safely. Without a VPN, if a remote worker’s computer is hacked, the hacker could easily access and corrupt a whole company’s data the next time the remote worker logs on. Allowing for safe remote working is one of the biggest perks an employer can offer, as well as increasing productivity.
What to look out for in a VPN – how to choose the best one for you:
There are a lot of VPN options available in the market, however there are certain important features you must check before settling on a specific VPN provider.
It is often important to understand the base lying protocol used by VPN and ensuring it is a secured enough protocol. Some common protocols include-
- SSL(Secure Socket Layer)/TLS(Transport Layer Security) - (OpenVPN): Has the highest encryption with fast speeds
- PPTP: Point to point tunnel protocol. Has basic or lower encryption
- IPSec: Internet Protocol Security. Provides encapsulation with some network limitations
- L2TP/IPSec: Layer2 Tunnel Protocol. High encryption and encapsulates data twice. Requires more CPU to do double encapsulation.
In case you are using computers (desktops or laptops), then OpenVPN is the best option.
However, mobile devices like iOS and Android do not support OpenVPN. So the only option over mobiles would be L2TP or IPsec. The only issue with L2TP is it lacks speed as compared to OpenVPN.
PPTP is usually avoided owing to its security issues and weak encryption.
Many (bad) VPNs drastically slow down the speed of your internet connection. The speed of internet your VPN allows is influenced by the location of the server. So it is important to check the number of servers and the geographical locations of the VPN servers- the closer the servers are to you, the less the VPN will slow down your internet. You want to choose a VPN provider that has multiple server locations – as many as possible round the world – so that you can have fast connection anywhere in the world you choose to connect.
Choose a VPN which does not have any specific bandwidth restriction or that do not throttle user’s bandwidth
This means – what happens when/ if the VPN provider should temporarily go down- does it have a backup system or kill switch in place? In case you are using VPN to maintain anonymity, you need to ensure that the VPN does not throw your traffic over the internet in case it faces any downtime. To prevent this, VPNs use kill a switch system, which will by default terminate the internet connection in case the VPN should suddenly go down, thereby preventing your connection or browsing being able to be seen over open and unsecured networks in case the VPN goes down.
Ensure the VPN you choose is within your budget. Check for renewal plans- some may drastically increase the prices after an initial cheap intro offer. Running a VPN costs money and free VPNs simply aren’t able to offer the same level of protection- it’s best to go for a good paid service if at all possible.
Another factor to check is the server configuration in terms of the number of concurrent connections it can handle – ie how many devices does the VPN provider let you connect to the VPN at the same time. A good provider should allow for multiple devices- including laptop, tablet and phone – to be connected at the same time without paying any extra. If you have several computers- desktop or laptop- it would be worth choosing a deal that allows for multiple such devices to be connected within the same payment deal.
Some VPNs do not maintain user logs, while some maintain logs for a certain duration. Check on the logging policies of the VPN provider. Also check the privacy protection policies and encryption details.
Important aspect while choosing any VPN is its review. Check for the latest reviews and feedback.
Is a free VPN good enough?
In addition to the numerous paid for VPN providers, there are also a number of free VPN options available. If you can have a free VPN, why would you still choose a paid VPN? Running a VPN costs money – so free VPN providers simply won’t be able to offer the same level of protection or service, as well as being limited on speed of internet and accessibility.
Some of the downsides of free VPN are:
Running a VPN service means maintaining multiple servers and other infrastructural facilities, which all cost money. So where do free VPN services make their money? This could simply be from advertisements. So whenever you use free VPNs you will be bombarded with popups and advertisements. This advertisement marketing requires analytics to be run on your data. This means your data will no longer remain fully private.
Even if your connection is encrypted, there is no guarantee with a free VPN provider, as to who is able to access your browing information or data. This could be a hacker. With free VPNs, there is no way to authorize the authenticity of the VPN provider. So the sensitive and personal information you provide over free VPN could actually be making the task of hackers easier.
With paid VPNs, you sign a consent or terms of the agreement before using the services – this mutual legal agreement lowers your risk. However, with free VPN, you can directly start using these services without any legally bound clauses, as free VPN providers don’t owe you the same level of service. This leaves you exposed to more risk in case of an event of misuse of your information.
With free VPNs, there is no way to find the authenticity of the VPN provider. Especially if it is not a very popular free VPN. This again adds to the risk.
With free VPNs, there are no controls on where your data is shared. For instance, Facebook is free, but the data is eventually used by search engines such as Google to run extensive analytics. Similarly, there is a high probability, to keep running their free services, that free VPNs could be sharing your data.
Some free VPNs put restrictions on the usage or access to certain domains. Also, there are some free VPNs which are initially free, but you need to pay a renewal fee to continue using their services.
Is there anything a VPN cannot protect me from?
VPNs enhance your privacy when you are over the Internet. At the same time, you cannot completely rely just on VPN to protect yourself. There are still several threats that could affect you even when using a good VPN.
VPNs are not a substitute for any antivirus software or spyware. Even with a VPN, you are susceptible to malware.
Even if you use a VPN, there is no guarantee your browser is safe and secure. While VPN secures data, it does not provide browser privacy.
VPNs maintain anonymity, but you are still not 100% anonymous. Which means with other relevant data, you or your IP could still be tracked. The complexity of tracking potential depends on the VPN provider services and the level of security yours provides.
There is no single way to check on where your data is being shared, or if it is being shared by the VPN provider. Data is encrypted over the Internet, but this data could be used by the VPN provider itself.
Do VPNs keep records of your data store data logs?
Some VPN providers, store some level of data logs. Some VPN providers have completely gone away with storing any kinds of logs. One such example is IPVanish which hasn’t stored any form of logs since 2014.
What kind of data logs can be stored by VPNs? There are two kinds of logging:
This includes data logs about websites visited, files downloaded, programs used, protocols used. Such logs expose your privacy and can reveal your information if they are shared.
Connection logs do not store anything about your data. All they store is information related to your connection start/end timestamp, the IP address of your computer, the amount of data transfer, and the IP address assigned to you by the VPN provider.
While choosing a VPN service, most VPN providers agree on specific terms for storing data logs, this could be only connection logs or both connection and activity logs or zero logs.
ISPs, by law, have to store data logs for at least 6 months. This means any browsing over ISP, will be tracked and logged. If you use a VPN, the ISP will not be able to log this information. The only thing that an ISP can log is the duration of the connection, the IP of the VPN and the amount of data transferred. One key point, is that no laws apply to VPNs and hence VPN providers do not need to maintain any data logs.
The benefits (need) of using VPN when using free/public Wi-Fi:
Wi-Fi is probably the most common mode to get connected to the internet. It is configured using wireless adapters called as hotspots. So anyone within a certain range of hotspot can access the Wi-Fi services. Wi-Fi can be-
Free Wi-Fi (such as in cafes, or other public places) is open to everyone, including a hacker. This means that any time you connect to a public wifi (any wifi that isn’t your own private one where you can see every connection and is password protected), you are at increased risk of being hacked, if you don’t use a VPN.
With so much information available, a hacker can easily get information about-
Your location and websites you visit
People you are constantly communicating with
Password, Credit card information
Login credentials for email/ social media accounts and online banking
This is more than enough information for a hacker to carry out an attack such as-
Man in the middle attack
Add a malware
Snoop and retrieve your data
Even worse a hacker could expose you to a fake network or hotspot without you realizing its fake
Owing to the above mentioned attacks, you are more susceptible to hackers without a VPN over a free or public Wi-Fi. To prevent this, you need to use a VPN to secure your connection. VPNs will keep all your data secure and encrypted, making it almost impossible for a hacker to retrieve any information.