What Is a VPN & How Does It Work?

A virtual private network (VPN) connects you with internet resources. And your connection is shielded from prying eyes, so you have at least some security and privacy.

Remote employees have used VPN systems for years. When they need to log onto the company's server, they use a VPN to do it.

But individuals are falling in love with VPNs too, and some use the technology to protect their digital lives both at home and on the go.

What Is a VPN?

A VPN is a method of connecting you with a digital resource you want, all while protecting your communication from outsiders.

Imagine you're sitting in a coffee shop, and you'd like to access a company's server and do some work while you sip your drink. You have two connection choices.

  • Your cellular data plan: You could connect with your phone and start reading. But if you've used up all available data for the month, this browsing session could be costly.
  • The coffee shop's WiFi: Many bars, restaurants, shopping centers, and other gathering places offer free WiFi for customers and consumers. It doesn't cost you a thing, but your privacy is far from protected.

A VPN solves financial and privacy situations at once. Pay a small monthly fee, and you can connect anywhere with a username and password. Once you're connected, you've opened up a tunnel between your device and the VPN, and that connection is encrypted. That tunnel works a little like insulation, so your communication can't be stolen by hackers, the government, or internet service providers.

About half of all VPN users choose this method due to security concerns. They're worried about theft of data, and they feel safer with practices that protect and defend their privacy. But you might also consider a VPN to help with:

  • General privacy. You may not be worried about identity theft, but you may not want your service provider to have access to your sensitive searches.
  • Restriction bypass. Use a server owned by someone else, and you must follow their rules. If you're using public WiFi, for example, you may not be able to download music or search for certain types of content. A VPN lets you avoid those rules.
  • Stable connection. You can't set the strength of a public server, and a weak connection leads to rough or missing downloads. A VPN ensures that you have a smooth and consistent experience.

Your reasons for shielding your activity are as unique as your fingerprint. But if you're considering a move to VPN, know that you're certainly not alone.

VPN Terms to Know

VPN technology was built with business in mind. IT professionals use a lot of jargon, and the phrases they toss around regarding VPN can leave you feeling a little lost. Definitions can help you shop with confidence.

Here are common terms you might hear from VPN vendors:

  • Encryption: Data moves through an algorithm, and it's scrambled accordingly. The scrambled data moves from one server to another, and once it arrives, it's decoded.
  • IP address: Numbers and periods uniquely identify your device and its location in the world.
  • IP count: This is the number of IP addresses a provider has available.
  • IPSec: Internet Protocol Security, or IPSec, refers to rules that VPNs use to connect two points privately.
  • ISP: Your internet service provider (or ISP) connects you with the internet.
  • Proxy: Proxy services hide your real IP address from websites and other resources you might visit. Some experts say companies that claim to offer VPN services offer simple proxy services instead. They're not the same thing.
  • VPN client: This is software on your device that makes connecting with your VPN quick and easy.

Your potential vendor may use more acronyms you don't know or understand. If so, ask for clarification before you sign up.

VPN Protocols Explained

All VPNs use protocols, or rules that help them transmit data between devices. Each one is a little different, and some come with security issues.

Common VPN protocols include:

  • IPSec. Encryption protects the data, and this tool can be combined with others to enhance security.
  • Secure sockets layer (SSL). An authentication, or handshake, happens before the two connect. The parameters of the connection are set during the handshake.
  • Transport layer security (TLS). This method also includes a handshake.
  • Point-to-point tunneling protocol (PPTP). This method doesn't encrypt data, but it can tunnel and encapsulate it.

What Does a VPN Do to Protect Your Security?

Using a VPN comes with a few drawbacks. For example, your speed might slow if plenty of other people are using the tool at the same time you are. But for some people, security protections are well worth the hassles.

For example, more than 80 percent of people connect to any available network for WiFi when they're out and about. They say they're willing to accept the risks for quick access.

But anyone monitoring the network could copy every keystroke and follow every click. That could lead to theft of:

  • Usernames and password combinations. 
  • Bank account information.
  • Uploaded data. 
  • Corporate secrets, including client names.

The person following your work could also see all of the websites you visited, all the search terms you used, and all of the email notes you sent.

A VPN encapsulates your session, so it's harder for people to follow you around on the web. Someone can't watch you enter account information on a bank site, so that person can't impersonate you and steal your money.

A VPN can also mask your ISP. It might seem like a small step, but experts explain that a great deal of your information is loaded into that tiny string of letters. Someone who sees your ISP knows just who you are and where you’re logging in from. A VPN makes that much more difficult.

Does a VPN Keep You 100% Safe Online?

A VPN offers a layer of security you can't find with a public WiFi login or a private modem. But you're not entirely free of spies and snoops while you're using your VPN.

Some people hope for complete online anonymity, so they can evade tracking from nefarious government agencies and nasty companies that install spyware. Unfortunately, a VPN can't offer complete protection from issues like this. It's tough to achieve complete privacy in any online environment.

A VPN also can't offer complete protection from advertisers. If you accept cookies, those sites can still follow you wherever you go, even if you're using a VPN.

Your VPN provider also has access to your browsing history. You have shifted privacy concerns away from your ISP, but chose the wrong VPN partner, and the problem persists.

4 Key VPN Shopping Tips

If you're ready to seek out a VPN partner, you'll need to assess several companies to find the one that's right for you.

Ask these questions of anyone you're considering:

  1. Can you tell me about your servers? Ideally, your company will have plenty of servers to handle traffic from plenty of customers. If you're hoping to reduce lag time, it might also be ideal if the servers are located at least somewhat close to your corporate headquarters or home.
  2. How much data will I have? VPN companies often set limits on how much data you can consume during a specific time. If you know you'll do plenty of work on the VPN yet you blow past your limit, your contract could be costly.
  3. How much data will you retain? Some VPNs offer a so-called zero-logs policy, in which they don't store anything that could be traced back to you. Others promise to store just a tiny amount of data.
  4. Do you offer a trial period? Some experts say you absolutely must test your VPN provider before you purchase. Only then will you know if you get the connectivity and responsiveness you need.

Be sure to ask questions before you make a final decision. This is an important purchase, and it pays to take your time.

And if you're looking for a secure, reliable VPN for your organization, discover Okta Open VPN, the only true VPN dedicated to business.

References

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Report: 82 Percent of People Say They Connect to Any Free Wifi That's Available in a Public Place. (March 2020). Decision Data.

What Is a VPN, and Why You Need One. (July 2020). PC Magazine.

How — And Why — You Should Use a VPN Anytime You Hop on the Internet. (July 2017). Tech Hive.

A VPN Can Protect Your Online Privacy. But There's a Catch. (March 2017). CNET.

VPNs: What They Do, How They Work, and Why You're Dumb for Not Using One. (March 2013). Gizmodo.

Buying a VPN? Here Are 7 Things to Look For. (February 2020). Tech Radar.

Understanding VPNs and How to Choose One. (March 2017). CNET.

What to Look for When Choosing a VPN. (October 2019). Internet Society.

How to Choose the VPN That's Right for You. (January 2019). ZD Net.

VPN Interest Surges in the U.S. as TikTok and WeChat Users Panic About Access to Chinese Apps. (September 2020). CNBC.