What is a VPN and why should I use one? The essentials explained

With near-constant talk of privacy breaches, hacks, and all manner of security-related tech issues in the headlines, VPNs are an increasingly vital tool for many people. We explain what a VPN is and take a look at who might want to use one.

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What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It’s a way of connecting your devices to the internet through your normal data or broadband connection, while adding an extra layer of privacy and security to everything you do online.

VPNs are frequently used by businesses and employees to connect to intranets when working remotely, but with more people sharing increasingly private data over online services than ever before, there’s an argument that everyone might want to at least consider a VPN for personal usage.

What does a VPN do?

A VPN can be used in many different situations to encrypt and reroute any traffic directed over its network.

Once you connect to a VPN, your true IP address, network location and other session details reflect those of the VPN, rather than of the home, office, or public Wi-Fi connection you’re using.

Given the relative ease of ‘man-in-the-middle’ attacks that can capture all the data sent from your computer when on a public network, a VPN is always recommended when using a public hotspot.

Once encrypted by a VPN, even if captured, that data is unreadable to any attacker, while other traces of your online presence are redirected away from your true IP address.

So, let’s say you’re at home with the IP address (this is just a test IP address generated for this example) in the UK. After connecting to a VPN, your IP address would reflect a different number (that of the server of the VPN) and location.

Using VPNs has therefore become a popular method of accessing geographically-locked content on services such as Netflix. However, content companies have gotten wise to this workaround and have largely plugged that gap.

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What do all the different protocols mean?

The concept of a VPN isn’t a tricky one: downloadable software that reroutes your internet connection to provide additional security and privacy. But the dazzling array of different protocols on offer is enough to put off the beginner.

Some of the protocols you’re likely to come across in ‘consumer’ VPNs include: IPSec, SSL/TLS, PPTP, L2TP, OpenVPN, and SSTP. There are even more enterprise-focused ones for business users to contend with. While acronym-heavy and off-putting, they all just encrypt data in slightly different ways, and thus, have slightly different use cases.

For example, if you’re connecting from behind a heavily firewalled network, you’ll probably find that OpenVPN will work far better for you than L2TP or IPSec. In general, the trade-off for increased security tends to be more limited speeds, which is in turn dictated by the choice of protocol and level of encryption. 256-bit AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) is more secure than 128-bit AES, but your upstream and downstream speeds will be slower.

PPTP, on the other hand, tends to offer faster speeds and widespread compatibility but less security.

Meanwhile, IPSec and L2TP provide a good balance between speed and privacy when OpenVPN isn’t an appropriate choice, such as on an unstable or slow network.

In many instances, OpenVPN will be the desired option. Trial and error between different encryption levels and protocols for your specific network might be required if you’re having trouble staying connected or getting very slow speeds.

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How to choose a VPN provider

Step one is to check out our expert guide to choosing the best VPN and step two is to reread it!

Generally, there are three main considerations when you’re picking a new VPN provider: speed, privacy, and features required.

Paid VPN options tend to provide far higher speeds, though that will vary according to the amount of traffic being routed via that network endpoint, your own connection speed, and a few other factors. Location of servers/endpoints is another consideration, both for ensuring a reliable connection and providing the maximum data protection available.

If you’re looking for ultimate privacy, VPNs that explicitly state they don’t log any information are the most secure. The level of logging will vary from each different company – some will log top-level domains, while others will note only when a session commenced and ended.

Some go further still and allow you to pay for your VPN using bitcoin, for additional anonymity. There are plenty of free VPN options available (like Tunnelbear or Hide My Ass) but performance is considerably more hit-and-miss and your options more limited.

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Should I use a VPN?

Public Wi-Fi hackers, snooping bosses, over-zealous government agencies, bored ISP customer support agents – these are just some of the reasons you might want to use a VPN (OK, perhaps not that last one) for all your browsing and online activity. It’ll also help prevent geographically-targeted advertising and in some (decreasing) instances, help you bypass restrictions put in place by services like Netflix or to access sites blocked by ISPs.

With an increasing amount of data accessible at any time, from any device, it makes sense that many people would like a little extra privacy and security. Consider it a bit like an extra lock for your bike – it could still get stolen when you leave it in public, but it’s still probably better to have one than not.

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Let us know whether you use a VPN and, if so, which one in the comments below.