What is a VPN? How does it work?

All your VPN questions are about to be answered! Virtual Private Networks have been growing in importance and profile in recent years.

But do you understand what they are, how they work, or what they’re for?

Let’s find out. In this article, we’ll run though the basics of VPNs and why you might need one.

What is a VPN?

A VPN is a Virtual Private Network. They’re designed to make your online activities private and anonymous.

They do so by encrypting the data your computer exchanges with the internet and hiding your IP address along with cookies and other signs of your presence.

This makes your online activities virtually untraceable and allows secure connections at all times, even from public Wi-Fi hotspots.

Why would I need a VPN?

Even the biggest ISPs (Internet Service Providers) can routinely share your browsing history and other information about you with advertisers, the government, and other parties.

What’s more, even ISPs with the best reputations have shown numerous times in recent years that they’re not immune to cybercrime and data breaches that can put your data at risk.

You might also consider how often you or any one of your employees might log onto a work system or do something like check your bank account while sitting in a cafe or waiting for an appointment, for example.

These are the kinds of public Wi-Fi networks where log ins, passwords, payment details, and other personal data is out there unprotected.

That’s where a VPN comes in. They let you send emails and make payments safely.

What does a VPN do?

Usually when you’re online, your internet traffic goes directly to your ISP who directs you to the website you want to be on.

A VPN redirects your internet traffic through a VPN server before it goes to its destination. To make this happen, a VPN does a number of different things:

1) Masks your location by hiding your IP

Some people use this as a handy way to explore the localised options of services like Netflix in other countries. But there’s a serious side to it too, enabling things like allowing people under oppressive regimes to avoid free speech censorship laws and prohibited webites.

2) Encrypts your data and protocols

Sometimes envisioned as an encryption “tunnel”, your VPN encrypts your internet traffic and prevents even your ISP from accessing (and then selling) your browsing history or data.

A VPN should make sure you don’t leave things like cookies or search history results behind you too. Encrypting cookies is very important if you don’t want your private data to be accessed.

How does a VPN work?

There are a couple of technical points it can be helpful to understand about how a VPN works. The process a Virtual Private Network uses to safeguard your online activities includes:

  1. Authentication – before creating a “tunnel”, your VPN authenticates your device. This usually involves 2FA (2-Factor Authentication, a vital modern cybersecurity practice).
  2. Encryption and “tunnelling” – your VPN then uses an encryption protocol to hide the data passing between your device and the internet.
  3. Packet wrapping – part of this process involves “wrapping” (and encrypting) the data packets your device sends to the internet and then “unwrapping” (and decrypting) the packets when they reach the VPN server. It then does the same in reverse when you receive data from the internet via your ISP.

Choosing the right VPN for you and your business

There are several different types of VPN out there. These include remote access VPNs, personal VPNs, site-to-site VPNs, and the SSL VPNs that became familiar to many business leaders during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are also numerous providers, each with a different VPN offering or packages. If you need a VPN for personal use, all that’s usually important to do is choose a provider you trust.

For a business VPN though, it’s always worth doing your homework. Or checking in with your Managed Service Provider and getting them to do it for you.

Need expert advice on how and where to use VPNs in your business?

Let’s talk. Nearly 1000 businesses in the Bristol area used Dial A Geek to maximise their use of tech.

Set up a cost and commitment-free chat with Chief Geek Gildas Jones today to talk through VPNs and other vital workplace cybersecurity measures.