How Do VPNs Actually Work?

While the internet has undoubtedly transformed the world in countless ways, it has also exposed both businesses and individuals to many more risks than ever before.

Giving others access to our personal data, or providing a window on our life online, are the main two of these dangers.

It’s also presented a very ripe area in which cyber criminals can operate. To give just an indication of the potential global cost this represents, it’s estimated that it will reach $7 trillion in 2022.

So keeping ourselves, and our businesses, safe has never been more important.

There are numerous obvious ways of going this, the first of which is to have water-tight security protected by strong passwords and multi-step authentication. But the world is changing and this is starting to make things a little more complicated.

For example, as part of many changes to working practices that are being introduced, an increasing number of employees are also starting to work remotely, potentially taking them outside the security measures put in place to protect the networks used by their employers.

So an extra level of security is needed, one that is often provided by a VPN.

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What Is A VPN And How Does It Work?

VPN stands for “virtual private network” and in those three words it perfectly expresses what it is. It’s virtual because it doesn’t physically exist in any form. It’s private because it’s almost impossible for any hacker to access the information that it is carrying. And it’s a network because it connects the user with the rest of the online world.

To explain how it works it’s useful to use the analogy of someone going on a shopping trip in a city. If they travel above ground from shop to shop it’s easy for any onlooker to see where they are going and how long they spend at each destination.

But what a VPN does is effectively provide an invisibility cloak so these movements can pass undetected. What’s more, it also hides the shopper’s identity by providing a different IP address each time they go online via a VPN.

To leave the analogy and go back to the technology itself, it achieves this in two ways. Firstly, it uses a proxy server that can be located anywhere to connect to the internet. It also encrypts the data being transferred to ensure that no outsider can intercept it.

The Advantages Of A VPN

In addition to the privacy that it provides, there are a number of other benefits of using a VPN. For example, some websites and streaming services are only available from certain territories. But as a VPN conceals a user’s location these suddenly become accessible.

Another, less obvious, benefit is that it allows users to avoid price discrimination. Some online retailers build an algorithm into their e-commerce site that increases prices for customers from big cities and other supposedly wealthier parts of a country. Again, a VPN hides the location and creates more of a level playing field when it comes to prices.

And Some Disadvantages…

However, there are certain drawbacks of using a VPN that also need to be taken into account. The first of these is that they offer potentially slower download and upload speeds than other networks.

It’s also the case that certain websites are starting to recognise when they are being accessed by VPNs and automatically blocking this kind of traffic.

Finally, one thing that most VPNS are unable to do is prevent tracking cookies from being stored on a user’s device. Although these are relatively easy to remove, it’s still an annoyance not to mention a potential risk.

Alternatives To VPNs

Many people, it must be said, also consider that VPNs are becoming less and less fit for purpose in the rapidly advancing world of the internet.

So, a number of cyber security operators have started to introduce different kinds of VPN alternative. These are cloud-based services and provide all the encryption security of VPNs combined with far greater control and flexibility.

Instead of using just one kind of encryption, these tend to offer a number of different ones. They also provide businesses with even greater protection by segmenting users and giving them differing access rights depending on their needs.

Plus, because they have been primarily designed for business use, they include many more features that can prove very useful to have.

These include the ability to monitor the network in general, no matter how disparate the work force, essential for auditing and ensuring compliance.

Other Security Advances

This is all taking place in an environment where many more advances in cyber security are taking place. For example, artificial intelligence is being deployed more and more to identify where attacks might be about to be launched. This, combined with behavioural analysis, is providing an ever-more sophisticated tool kit to use against would-be cyber criminals.

The blockchain that sits behind cryptocurrencies is also starting to play an increasing role in cyber security. This is because, in the same way that VPNs and their alternatives conceal user’s true identities, this technology does much the same.

So while VPNs are undoubtedly very useful, they are by no means the only option for individuals or businesses who want to keep themselves safe online. And anyone wanting to give themselves extra protection would be well-advised to look into the alternatives as well.

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