What is a VPN?
A VPN is a powerful and versatile tool that could make it nearly impossible for someone to snoop on your network or track you as you browse the web. This is because a VPN creates an encrypted connection between your device and a server operated by the VPN provider, which accesses the internet on your behalf. This effectively creates a secure tunnel for your online activities to pass through. A VPN also masks your computer’s IP address making it harder for outsiders, including advertisers and your internet service provider (ISP), to track you online.
This is especially useful when you’re accessing public Wi-Fi networks, such as the ones at coffee shops, airports, hotels or onboard airplanes via in-flight Wi-Fi. Performing online activities such as banking, shopping or email on public Wi-Fi networks makes you especially vulnerable to identity and data theft, but a VPN can mitigate the risks by preventing anyone on the same Wi-Fi hotspot from intercepting your web traffic.
A VPN can also securely connect you to your company’s network, even when you’re outside the office. It’s an invaluable tool for working remotely, as you can access the company intranet or email from anywhere with a reliable internet connection, without any additional security risks.
What to look for in a VPN
With more than 800 VPN services out there, choosing just one may seem daunting. But most VPN providers offer a free trial so you can get a feel for how they perform before paying for the service. Most also provide short-term subscriptions of either a week or a month, so you can easily switch from one VPN to another until you find the one that works best for you and your business.
But what should you look for? Firstly, don’t evaluate a VPN solely on price. While most VPN services require payment, there are a few, such as TunnelBear, that offer free VPN services. They are generally limited as far as features, server locations and speeds go, but these might be enough if your needs are fairly basic.
If you are a beginner, it’s best to choose a VPN that’s user-friendly. Top VPN providers such as Private Internet Access (PIA), NordVPN and ExpressVPN, for instance, require next to no set-up – simply download the app onto your computer or mobile device, log in, select the location of the VPN server you’d like to connect to and you’re ready to go. Other providers need you to jump through a few more hoops and manually configure your network settings.
A good rule of thumb for selecting VPN server locations is that, unless you’re looking to access a service not normally available in Australia, then you’re almost always going to want to choose a VPN server located closest to you.
Pay particular attention to the privacy practices of whichever service you choose. Some VPN providers keep temporary logs of the time and date users connect to their VPN in addition to storing their original IP address, while others like PIA do not log any form of customer data.
Get safe and get a VPN
There are a lot of situations where you will want to keep your VPN connection active, such as whenever you connect to a public Wi-Fi network or an untrusted network that you don’t own or manage. It’s also prudent to use a VPN when handling sensitive business data, which might include sharing company data with colleagues or clients remotely via email or a VOIP service like Skype. Or it could be that you’re doing market research on a competitor and you don’t want your rival to be alerted to you having accessed their company website. And, of course, a VPN is essential if you plan on accessing resources on the company’s network while you’re away from the office.
In an age of sophisticated cybercrime, heightened government surveillance and industrial espionage, a VPN is a fundamental tool that everyone should have at their disposal.