What is a VPN, and what can you use one for?

Connect securely to your network from anywhere in the world, cover your tracks, protect your privacy and watch stuff you’re not supposed with a VPN

VPN (short for virtual private network) is basically a secure link between your computer and another computer somewhere else on the internet. In theory, all communication between your computer and that computer over the internet can’t be eavesdropped on or inspected so as to see what you’re up to.

Having  VPN configured on your network’s server or a network hardware device will allow a user to connect from their laptop or tablet from anywhere in the world there is an internet connection and allow them to access their files, folders and email etc… as if they’re right there in the office.

You can get access to a VPN service out with your company’s network by giving a VPN hosting company a few pounds a month, then configuring your computer or router to send all your internet traffic via them. Most VPN providers have servers in multiple countries, so you can pretend to have your internet connection appear to be in any country in the world.

Evading and confusing the indiscriminate mass surveillance of a nation state is a popular use of VPN services. By using that secure link between you and a computer abroad, ideally in a friendly jurisdiction, you’re able to avoid the government’s tracking of which websites you visit and when. All your ISP will record is that you visited the VPN over and over, because they don’t know where that traffic goes after it leaves your VPN provider.

If privacy is your reason for wanting to use a VPN, make sure you check that your DNS information isn’t leaked, which would result in your ISP knowing which websites you visited.  Ensure that you use a VPN service that doesn’t log your activity, nor is in a country that shares its surveillance data with the UK. There’s no point trying to hide your tracks from your ISP if the VPN provider is logging it and they’re in a Five Eyes country that shares its information with the UK.

Of course, a VPN alone isn’t a foolproof way of evading surveillance, as there are multiple methods the law has up its sleeve to track what you’re up to. A downside of routing all your traffic over a VPN is that you’ll suffer a slower Internet connection due to all your traffic travelling across the globe and back again, even if accessing a local server.

Another less known, but perhaps the most important, reason to grab a VPN account is to protect yourself when using unsecured public wi-fi. Most public wi-fi hotspots don’t use WPA2 encryption so that you can connect to the network without having to enter a password. Without any encryption, anyone also using that same access point as you with nefarious or even curious intentions can see whatever you’re doing. Utilising a VPN encrypts all that information so anyone looking at your data stream will just see gibberish.

Once again, a VPN isn’t perfect, as in that short period between connecting to the wi-fi and your VPN connecting, there can still be unencrypted traffic flowing out of your computer or smartphone, so be aware of that next time you use public wi-fi.

A more consumer mainstream use of a VPN is to get around pesky geolocation of Internet services. Take for if you’re abroad but still wanna watch some iPlayer? Fire up your VPN, set your endpoint to the UK and tune in.

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