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A VPN (virtual private network) protects your online privacy by encrypting all of your internet traffic.
It’s a way to connect to the internet that’s secure and private.
When you use one, it becomes essentially impossible to track what sites you visit, or where your computer is located.
Deciding if you need a VPN? Check out this guide.
VPNs are most commonly used by people who care about preserving their privacy.
Many websites online try to track users, either for marketing or less legitimate purposes, and VPNs prevent this from happening.
Another common use case is to get around geographical restrictions online.
Because virtual private networks typically work by masking your location and replacing it with somewhere else, you can get around regional blocks on online content.
The most famous example is tricking the online video site Netflix into thinking you’re in a different country, where it offers different shows and movies.
It effectively tricks your device into thinking it’s in a different location to where you are.
This means that your internet service provider can’t slow your internet speed either, which it often does if you’re doing something speed-intensive like streaming or gaming.
Virtual private networks can also help protect you from hackers if you’re using a public Wi-Fi hotspot, for example in a cafe or hotel.
Malicious websites can download malware and viruses onto your device without you knowing.
Virtual private networks with built-in protection help to prevent this by blocking these sites before they can do any damage.
Many people use a VPN for work to help keep sensistive information private.
Your VPN will encrypt all of your internet activity through it’s own servers.
For example, you might be in the UK and connect to a US server. It sends your traffic from the UK to the US, completely encrypted.
Because it’s encrypted, your internet service provider can’t see the websites you access, where you are, or track your device.
Your virtual private networksserver then forwards your traffic to the website you’re visiting. The site you visit sees the VPN server as the origin of your traffic, instead of your device.
This means that the website sees your VPN server’s IP address instead of yours.
The best virtual private network providers use thousands of servers and regularly update their IP addresses, so that websites don’t have enough time to blacklist and block them.
That keeps you completely private and undetectable.
Think of your internet traffic as being sent through to the company hosting the virtual private network.
When they receive your request to view a certain webpage or download a certain file, they’ll get that information for you and send it back to you.
It’s like getting a middleman to collect your post for you, except that they encrypt everything they’re doing.
The website at the far end – Netflix, YouTube, Facebook – only ever deals with the VPN.
Because of this indirection, it’s trivial for virtual private networks companies to mask your true location.
If you’re located in the UK but use a VPN located in America, the website you’re interested in will think you’re based in the U.S.A..
They can even host multiple servers in different countries and bounce your traffic through all of them, making tracking your request from the outside incredibly difficult.
In addition to encrypting your traffic, they use several thousand servers and reset them regularly, updating their IP (Internet Protocol) address.
This means that even if a website tries to block them, it’ll only last for a short while.
It’s important you choose one that’s trusted, reliable and safe, as some can be risky.
Reliable virtual private networks offer a variety of privacy and security features, such as:
No-logging policies prevent VPN providers from recording your internet browsing history.
If they don’t log your information, they can’t disclose it to government agencies, even if they’re requested to.
It also means that if the VPN becomes compromised by hackers, they can’t retrieve any of your information from the servers.
Each time you visit a website, your computer sends a request to a DNS server for the website’s IP address.
Normally, this request would go to your internet providers DNS servers, which reveals your browsing activity.
When you’re connected to a VPN, your DNS requests are routed through your VPN’s DNS servers.
However, sometimes your device can reroute your requests back to your internet provider without you knowing. DNS leak protection stops this from happening.
Even though IPv6 is available, most VPNs still use IPv4 addresses. This creates the potential for a security breach.
If your internet provider supports IPv6, and you access a website that also supports it, your traffic to that website will be routed through your internet provider, and not your VPN.
This would reveal your internet activity and your true location to the website.
The best, most trusted VPNs disable IPv6 traffic to protect you from these leaks. You can still visit IPv6-enabled websites, but you’ll do so using an IPv4 address.
The main internet browsers like Safari, Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer and Opera, use WebRTC technology to communicate. To do this, they need to know their real IP addresses.
The techniques they use to get this information are much more sophisticated than websites like Netflix use, so it’s more difficult to hide your IP from them.
Third parties can exploit WebRTC to find out your actual IP address and location.
The best VPNs will disable WebRTC and shield your IP address to stop this from happening to you.
Here’s 5 things to look for when choosing a virtual private networks
Need help deciding which vpn is best? Check out our review of the top 7.
Or if you’re looking for a VPN for work, check out this list of the best VPNs for business.
You might think that virtual private networks are intended mainly for individual use.
While this is true, they’re also very valuable tools for businesses, and there are even several specialist VPNs designed solely for business use.
Let’s consider some of the reasons why you might want to start using a virtual private network at your company.
Businesses have to be concerned with privacy as well.
If you’re handling sensitive data – customer details, for example – then not taking adequate measures to protect it can lead to data theft, leaks or even fines.
VPNs prevent this by obscuring the identity of every computer on your network, meaning outsiders won’t even know it’s coming from your business.
Remote working is one of the biggest trends in the business world, and all signs indicate that it’s only going to grow more popular.
It can be hard, however, to ensure that employees working from home all have the same level of security and privacy when connecting to your internal company resources.
Virtual private networkssolve this issue by extending a private network that your employees can connect to just as easily as they would to the normal internet.
This makes remote working safer and more convenient for everyone involved.
Most virtual private networks come with a bevy of extra features to tempt you into making a purchase.
But while many of these features are very useful, they’re not all self-explanatory.
A VPN is only useful while it’s active. If it goes offline or crashes, your activity will be public knowledge again. Even worse, this can happen without you realising it.
It’s like driving around in a car without knowing that the brakes are broken: a recipe for disaster.
That’s why many virtual private networks – though not all – come with killswitches that detect when the service goes down. When it does, they shut off your internet connection entirely, preventing any unencrypted data from getting out.
To put it simply, DNS is the system that takes a website’s URL (like digitalsupermarket.com) and converts it into something that a computer can understand.
Usually, this is done by your internet service provider.
You might see the problem here – even if your traffic is encrypted, your provider will still be able to see what you’re doing through the URLs your computer is trying to process.
As such, you should try to find one that either hosts its own DNS or uses one like FreeDNS or DNSWatch, which are designed for privacy.
This is particularly useful for businesses, because you’re often dealing with dozens, if not hundreds of computers.
While you could manually set up the VPN on each one of them, that’s time-consuming and error-prone.
A better solution is to install the VPN on your router – the middle-man between your local network and the outside world – to automatically send all of your local traffic to the VPN.
Not every VPN offers router support, however, and not all routers work well with VPNs.
It’s worth getting a networking expert to see how easy it would be to implement this, as it’s simpler and more time-efficient overall.
Yes. They are legal in almost every country, and ones where they aren’t typically have other stringent measures on internet access, like China and Iraq.
Take note, however, that even if it’s legal to use one, many websites don’t approve of their use.
It’s actually against Netflix’s terms of service, for example, to visit it through a VPN. They could, technically, terminate your account and be under no obligation to reinstate it.
While this isn’t likely to be a concern for most businesses, you should still take the time to check if any of the websites you regularly visit in the course of businesses operations forbid the use of VPNs.
On the whole, they are extremely safe to use. Most virtual private networks companies take your security very seriously, and many even have ‘no-logs’ policies.
This means they don’t keep any records of your traffic, so they couldn’t infringe on your privacy even if they wanted to.
However, when you use a VPN, you’re putting trust in the company offering the service. There have been incidents in the past of shady VPNs – typically free ones – harvesting and selling user data.
As with any product, you should always do your own research before buying something to decide whether or not it’s legitimate.
If VPNs didn’t have any flaws, then everybody would use them all of the time.
Even if you’ve made your mind up about wanting to use one for your business, it’s a good idea to think over some of the flaws to avoid any nasty surprises.
This shouldn’t be a big surprise. The companies that host VPNs have to stay in business somehow, and they pass that cost on to you.
Even if the fee for using a VPN is only a few dollars a month, that’s still more than it costs to connect to the internet normally.
This is especially true for business plans which have to handle large amounts of traffic.
Before going all-in with VPNs, it’s worth asking how important the security they bring is, and whether it needs to be deployed over all of your operations, or only a small portion of them.
The very nature of using a VPN means that it will always be slower than your normal internet connection.
This is because every piece of information you send out or take in has to be encrypted, which takes time.
While this isn’t an issue for normal web-browsing, if your company depends on a high-speed connection (for streaming video or moving around large files, for example) then it can add serious delays to your operations.
Choosing the right VPN isn’t something to take lightly.
Setting one up for a large company can take a lot of time and effort, so you don’t want to have to rip out your new software a week after you’ve installed it.
Arguably the most important thing about a VPN is the security and privacy it gives you – that’s the entire point of using them. But not all VPNs are created equal.
Consider searching for providers with a ‘no-logs’ policy. This means that they track absolutely nothing about your web-browsing, and as such your data couldn’t be seized by government agencies or hackers, even if they got into the VPN’s servers.
Beyond that, your next concern should be speed.
Even good VPNs will slow down your speeds, but in the worst-case scenario they can almost halve it.
You might think that speed isn’t a priority for you, but remember that you’ll likely be using your internet connection every day for years on end.
Minor slowdowns or annoyances build up over time, so it’s worth paying a little bit more for a faster connection.
Next, you should think about usability. Many providers, like NordVPN and Surfshark, offer mobile apps which let you use their VPNs on your smartphones.
This is important because phones are typically used with public WiFi, such as in cafes or libraries, which is very insecure.
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