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What is a VPN? (and How to Use it Securely)

COVID-19 kicked off a mass exodus toward remote work. Since then, VPNs have become one of the hottest topics in the cyber world. In the first two weeks of March, for example, countries like Italy and the USA have shown an increase of over 100% in VPN usage. However, the popularity of VPNs has made us look at them with a bit more scrutiny: which VPN should we use, when should we use it, and, most importantly, is it really that secure? 

What is a VPN?

A VPN or Virtual Private Network allows you to create a secure Internet connection to another network. To put it simply, a VPN tunnels you safely through the world wide web. When you don’t use a VPN and want to access a website, your request goes directly to your Internet provider who forwards your internet traffic to that website and gives you a unique number (an IP address). This number can be used to track your traffic and location, mainly for marketing purposes. When using a VPN, your internet traffic goes via the VPN’s internet connection and your IP address becomes associated with the VPN itself. This allows you to hide your location and activity from your Internet provider and from the websites you are visiting, giving you a virtual, invisible hat.

Why do we use VPNs?

Premium VPNs were designed to give remote workers and business travelers access to their business network from anywhere in the world. In the corporate world, it protects sensitive data by not exposing it directly to the Internet. In this context, it is a good safety net for companies to allow people to work securely from home.

Today, free VPNs are increasingly popular among private users who use them for different reasons: when they want to browse the internet securely but don’t have a work use-case; when they want to access geo-blocked websites (for those based in countries where Internet is censored); or when they want to watch streaming media not accessible in some countries (like Netflix or BBC iPlayer). Sometimes they use it to book travel tickets or accommodation as the prices vary depending on your location. The point is, free VPNs are of course LESS safe than premium ones, but most people use a VPN when they want to shield their Internet activity from strangers or when they want to keep their virtual whereabouts private over public Wi-Fi.

How to choose a VPN provider?

When using a VPN, it is crucial to remember that while it gives you an invisible hat and hides your activity from websites and your Internet provider, it does not hide that information from itself. There have been numerous examples of free VPN providers selling data to third-parties or not encrypting their connections. It is therefore crucial to choose the right VPN provider which will serve a purpose and will not compromise your online safety. 

If you are working from home, speak to IT about the preferred VPN of your company. This way you will be sure you are using the right solution which is secured against cyberattacks. 

If you need a VPN for your private browsing, you have a good selection of both free and payable services. When choosing your provider, consider googling it first and looking for news and reviews about it. Also, carefully read its terms of service and consider the below points: 

  • Does the VPN use encrypted connections? 
  • Is it provided by a reputable company, based in a country which respects the rule of law?
  • Is the company transparent about its privacy policy? 
  • Does it have a history of leakage? What did they do to fix it, if anything?
  • Does it log your browsing history? If so, how long does it keep it, and would it disclose it for any reason?

Like with so many other decisions you are making, choosing the right VPN provider may take time, but will prove invaluable in the future… helping you stay safe online and avoid identity theft and data breach every time you connect to the internet!

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