Should You Be Using A VPN?

25th April, 2016 by

Exploring the benefits of using a virtual private network.

A virtual private network, or VPN, may feel like an alien concept to many people. However, in these days of heightened privacy concerns and malicious hacking, it represents an optimal way to safely transmit data over the internet.

In essence, a VPN is a secure internet connection between two or more computers in different locations. Although a private individual could easily create their own VPN, they tend to be the province of companies or organisations. A firm may establish a VPN which its employees can log into when they’re not in the office, perhaps for check stock levels or send each other messages. Most further education institutions will have a VPN where students can upload work, check exam results and register for extra-curricular classes. Even Microsoft Windows has integrated VPN software for remote access to other devices – ideal for the self-employed.

Creating a VPN is relatively straightforward, and accessing it is no more difficult than logging into your online banking or social media accounts. Logging in through a VPN client or gateway website will establish a secure link between your device and the host, with keys exchanged between both devices to establish each other’s veracity and ensure any subsequent communications will be encrypted.

That’s the theory, and below are the practical benefits of using a VPN:

  1. It provides a platform where sensitive information can be shared. Returning to the further education example mentioned above, a publicly visible website would offer students no privacy. A VPN can allow them to view and respond to potentially sensitive correspondence such as exam results or placement feedback in a private environment, accessible around the clock from wherever that student happens to be.
  2. It can secure an otherwise unsecured network. This is particularly important when the internet access itself is publicly accessible, such as a hotel’s free Wi-Fi or a 4G mobile connection on the move. A VPN brings privacy to internet communications that could otherwise be intercepted or spied on quite easily.
  3. It doesn’t require use of a particular machine. A local area network features machines with a physical connection – typically through an Ethernet cable and an on-site network server. It’s therefore inaccessible if someone is at home or on holiday. A VPN can be viewed from any device with a steady internet connection – an iPhone, a Chromebook, even a communal PC in a hotel lobby. The best VPNs are accessible through operating systems ranging from iOS and Android to Linux and Windows.
  4. It helps fend off malicious attacks. The internet is awash with viruses, hackers, malware and fraudsters. While firewalls and antivirus packages go a long way towards deflecting these risks, a VPN provides an almost impenetrable barrier to hacking or unwanted attention when users are logged into it.
  5. There are fewer ongoing costs. Establishing a link between different offices used to require a T1 line or other expensive infrastructure. A VPN can operate via standard broadband connections, and support costs from VPN providers are often low due to economies of scale and minimal levels of technical support being needed. The network can also be expanded exponentially without increasing running costs.
  6. It enhances privacy. Data accessed through a VPN is encrypted more effectively than via alternatives such as a web proxy. A VPN can cloak your IP address and disguise your location – useful for circumstances as diverse as using a torrenting app, or posting comments online in politically unstable countries.
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