What is a VPN and what does it do?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. A VPN connects two internet nodes (a nerd way to refer to a device connected to the internet) securely and privately even in a public network. A user using a VPN client on Computer A connects to a VPN server using data security measures such as encryption to send and receive information from the server. To communicate with Computer B using a VPN, both computers must be connected to the VPN server. Any data sent or received on either computer must pass through the VPN server. One use of VPN technology is to extend Private networks over public channels. For example, a company may enable workers with portable workstations to connect to the company network as if they were using the office computer. The network traffic is routed over public infrastructure, but it is encrypted by the VPN client and therefore secure from spoofing and other forms of interceptions. This is ideally the case for companies with offices in two or more different locations.
Virtual Private Networks are not just for corporates. Since the connections are secure and private, VPNs can be used by individuals for anonymous browsing. Anyone who needs to protect their privacy from webpages and web applications should use a VPN. Anonymous browsing comes in handy in cases where ISPs monitor web traffic in a view to regulate/restrict bandwidth. Many ISP limit the bandwidth for P2P file sharing and torrent downloading clients. Tools like stayinvisible.com can reveal to you the amount of information you share with other websites.
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Another (and very important) use of a VPN is to secure your local files when using public Wi-Fi hotspots like a café, train and so on. Information sent or received from such connections maybe intercepted by third parties. Likewise, third parties may have unlimited access to files stored in your local drives. Using commerce websites over an unsecured Wi-Fi may put your credit card information at risk in case a hacker is snooping around. In short, a VPN enhances security because eavesdroppers cannot make sense of your encrypted communications.
Finally, a VPN is comes in handy when you want websites and web applications to think you are in a different physical location. This helps you unlock services that are locked in your home country. For this reason, a VPN is a must have tool when you travel abroad. When packing your toothbrush, remember your VPN client. You’ll need it.
Why should I use a VPN?
Protect your data
When using the internet, your greatest security risk is data in transit. Regardless of whether you are using a secured Wi-Fi or the open Train Wi-Fi, your data is vulnerable when moving between your device and the network hub. The only way to protect your data is by encrypting your data, staying anonymous or both.
The latter makes it hard for hackers to make meaningful use of your data since it is scrambled. On the other hand staying anonymous alone doesn’t necessarily protect your data but it protects your identity from being associated with intercepted data. VPNs encrypt your data and at the same time transmit the data anonymously. Secondly, the data stored in your local hard drive is secure since information sent from your computer doesn’t map back to your machine.
As a student in an institution or an employee in a company, you will be subjected to a form of ‘Acceptable Use’ policy when accessing the company/institution network. What is under ‘Acceptable Use’ is debatable, and thus many organizations impose draconian restrictions; that even prevent you from checking your Facebook, watching a YouTube video or reading Twitter.
A VPN will act as your tunnel out to such a restricted network enabling you to access to otherwise restricted websites and web applications. More significantly, your packets are scrambled and undecipherable by your network provider hence no evidence can be recorded or collected on your web activity. We don’t recommend violating Acceptable Use policies, but if you feel there are justifiable reasons for bypassing network restrictions, then a VPN client will help.
Just like ‘Acceptable Use’ policies are enforced at organizations, some governments find it prudent to impose tyrannous internet censoring on their entire network infrastructure. If you work or live in such a nation, using a VPN server will ‘tunnel’ you out of these oppressive censorship restrictions and into the World Wide Web.