VPN stands for virtual private network. The network part, well, that's easy. It's basically a bunch of computers that share various resources. Private? That one's pretty self-explanatory. The "virtual" bit is where things get a little more complicated.
When you connect to a VPN, all the data that gets sent from your device to the private network at the other end (and back) is "encapsulated." Each packet of data gets put inside another packet -- think putting a letter into an envelope to keep its contents from being read during transport. The envelope could still be opened, though. That's why organizations like the CIA put tamper-proof tape over the flap. With a VPN connection, encryption is the tamper-proof tape. Some VPNs use SSL for encryption (just like secure websites do). Others might use IPSec or PPTP.
The end result is a sort of network-within-a-network, but because of encapsulation and encryption your connection to a VPN remains private even though the data you're transmitting is moving over the very public Internet.
VPNs are a fairly simple tool, but they can be used to do a wide variety of things:
- Access a Business Network While Traveling
- Access Your Home Network While Travelling
- Hide Your Browsing Activity From Your Local Network and ISP
- Bypass Internet Censorship
- Access Geo-Blocked Websites
- Downloading Files
How Can You Choose A Good VPN service?
Here are some questions to ask when you’re choosing a VPN provider.
Do they respect your privacy? The point of using a VPN is to protect your privacy, so it’s crucial that your VPN provider respects your privacy, too. They should have a no-log policy, which means that they never track or log your online activities.
Do they run the most current protocol? OpenVPN provides stronger security than other protocols, such as PPTP. OpenVPN is an open-source software that supports all the major operating systems.
Do they set data limits? Depending on your internet usage, bandwidth may be a large deciding factor for you. Make sure their services match your needs by checking to see if you’ll get full, unmetered bandwidth without data limits.
Where are the servers located? Decide which server locations are important to you. If you want to appear as if you’re accessing the Web from a certain locale, make sure there’s a server in that country.
Will you be able to set up VPN access on multiple devices? If you are like the average consumer, you typically use between three and five devices. Ideally, you’d be able to use the VPN on all of them at the same time.
How much will it cost? If price is important to you, then you may think that a free VPN is the best option. Remember, however, that some VPN services may not cost you money, but you might “pay” in other ways, such as being served frequent advertisements or having your personal information collected and sold to third parties.
If you compare paid vs. free options, you may find that free VPNs:
- don’t offer the most current or secure protocols
- don’t offer the highest bandwidth and connection speeds to free users
- do have a higher disconnection rate
- don’t have as many servers in as many countries globally
- don’t offer support
Regardless of which provider you choose, be rest assured that a good VPN will provide you more security, privacy, and anonymity online than a public Wi-Fi hotspot can.
The encryption and anonymity that a VPN provides helps protect your online activities: sending emails, shopping online, or paying bills. VPNs also help keep your web browsing anonymous.
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