What is a VPN?

The short version

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It allows you to connect your computer to a private network, creating an encrypted connection that masks your IP address to securely share data and surf the web, protecting your identity online.

Have you been reading a lot lately about this thing called a “VPN”? Want to know what it is and how it helps you live a more secure online existence? Check out our basic guide below and links to useful pages within our resource center. Welcome to all things “Virtual Private Network”!

At their inception, VPNs were created to allow businesses to securely access their internal networks from an employee’s home office. However, the tech has spread since the early days, and now mainstream internet users are jumping on the VPN bandwagon as a way to access multimedia from anywhere.

A little-known fact by the average web-user is that the home WiFi network can be just an insecure as a random public one. For this reason, investing in an addition, trusted, security like a VPN will keep your information safe.

As a small business owner, a VPN can secure the transfer of proprietary information to distributed global employees. Sending private emails and presentations will remain out of the hands of hackers and eavesdroppers. A VPN ensures your data, and that of your customers remains private.


What is a VPN connection?

When you’re logging on to your internet, you begin by connecting to your local ISP (Internet Service Provider). This gives you access to the online world. However, all of the sites and applications that you visit while connected to that ISP can be logged through their servers.

Connecting via a VPN protects your data as it travels from your laptop, tablet or cellphone. The data is encrypted through a ‘VPN tunnel,’ and your ISP can no longer eavesdrop on your history or data. They can’t see your activity online since it’s routed through the VPN servers.

Anyone else trying to snoop through a hacked WiFi will only see you’re connecting through a VPN, not your ISP, and cannot read your data. If they are able to get any of the data, it will look like gibberish.

VPNs vs. Proxy Servers

There is a lot of confusion about proxy server versus VPN being the same thing. They are not.

A proxy server simply masks your identity to other websites. If you use a proxy to connect to a website, your ISP is masked by that proxy. It appears as if you have a new IP address (the proxy’s IP address) to the website you’re connecting to and thus that site does not know who you are. You appear as a different identity and location via the proxy, where that specific proxy server is physically located.

To break it down, a proxy is the middleman between your computer and the internet. It acts as an intermediary to mask your computer’s identity.

Here’s the downside of using a proxy, and where it gets a little invasive; The proxy server knows your real identity. While almost all HTTPS connections like online stores, financial and email services are secure, the owner of the proxy can see all the unencrypted sites you visit. If you decide to use a proxy, you’re putting a lot of trust into them.

If the proxy is the (hopefully trustworthy) middleman, the VPN is the secure tunnel that connects you directly to whichever website you’re visiting, encrypting your information along the way and masking the location of your ISP. To the websites you visit with a VPN, you will appear to them as if you’re located where the VPN servers are housed.

So why would you want to use a VPN instead of a proxy? It’s all about security. If you’re running a small business, keeping your financial data and that of your client’s privacy is extremely important. Any data breach of your information can jeopardize your reputation and your company’s future. If you go with a proxy, you’re trusting all your information to a completely unknown entity.

Let’s say you trust your proxy server. Even if that is that case, the proxy only protects you for the specific website you’re currently visiting, while the VPN secures your connection completely. Another great reason to choose a VPN is ease of use. VPNs do not require extensive configuration. They’re basically plug-n-play and versatile across devices such as tablets and mobile.

A paid subscription VPN will not log your activity like a proxy will. If you need to access your customer’s information or respond to requests from a public WiFi network, rest assured your information and theirs will remain private. A proxy server will only hide your ISP, but VPNs will encrypt the whole connection to the internet.


Using a VPN

In addition to privacy being the primary rationale for needing a VPN in the beginning of this article, there are many more reasons to jump on the VPN bandwagon:

  • Better streaming

    Bypass a congested network with a VPN and receive faster, uninterrupted, streaming services. With the VPN you’ll not only get to watch The Real Housewives of Whatever, wherever you may be, you’ll view it without pesky interruptions or slowdowns.

  • Censorship Restrictions

    Some countries restrict content and certain websites altogether as a form of state or religious censorship. While this is the most extreme example of censorship, also consider the more mundane: schools and universities block websites, as do corporations who think the less time their employees spend on Facebook, the better. A VPN circumvents these situations, bypassing censorship at any level.

  • Access Business or Home Networks while on the Road

    Do you work for a globally distributed team, are you traveling for business or attending a conference? You’ll need secure access to the virtual office. Going back to its original intention, the VPN is still used for accessing your business computer from anywhere in the world. If you need to work from home, or check in at the train station, or send important private files to your colleagues, a VPN makes this possible.

  • Cheaper Travel Fares

    Did you know that major companies like Kayak.com will use your IP address to assess how much your airfare, hotel or car rental should cost? You could be paying more by searching for airfare from your local ISP than if you used a VPN to log in from a different country.

For instance, if you search for international flights from the USA to Bolivia, chances are the airfare will be higher because of your IP address. You might be able to source cheaper travel and hotels by switching your IP location via the VPN to either the country where the airline is headquartered, or a lower-income location. Before you book, test out a few different locations with your VPN and compare before getting out your credit card.

With the privacy of a VPN, websites such as Kayak.com cannot log your IP address, cookies or GPS tracker (if you’re on a mobile) and use this information to sell you a more expensive travel package.


Conclusion

You may be wondering if the potential end of net neutrality with the FCC rulings means you need a VPN. This is a question on a lot of people’s minds. If ISPs can start slowing down your connection, depending on paywalls or outright block services without a premium, you’ll find yourself needing that VPN.

While this hasn’t come into effect in the United States yet, it is a reality in other countries such as Portugal. It’s never a bad time to start using a VPN. You’ll find the benefits a boon to your business and be up-to-date on the latest must-have tech for working and surfing online.

Using a VPN can be an inexpensive and secure method to access the internet from anywhere be it your home office, a cafe, the airport, etc. It provides secure communication between you and your employees, customers and banks.

Data and browsing security are key to running any company. From communicating with remote employees to being able to travel for work and not worry about logging on to random WiFi hotspots, the potential problems without a VPN are put aside. Proprietary information is kept secret and you can go on with your daily tasks and schedules without worry. With ease of install and peace of mind, a VPN for a small business is the must-have for today’s entrepreneur.

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