Those who work remotely by connecting to their company’s network will most likely be familiar with VPNs. Those who use them for personal network security probably also know them well. If you don’t have any experience with a VPN, I’m sure that you’ve heard the term at some point. So, what are they, and how are they used?
Here’s the short answer: a VPN or Virtual Private Network provides a means of connecting to a private network, giving you access to resources within that network.
A virtual private network provides security via limited access. VPNs allow us onto private networks over a public internet connection, all without letting other unknown users entrance to them. If you want to know more details about VPNs, look at our section on VPN software.
A VPN provides a ton of benefits, such as access to resources on your company’s LAN. The greatest benefit, though, is the security they provide. If you work from home for a company that deals with confidential information, you most likely use a VPN to ensure your connection is secure.
Let’s take a look at what kind of things a VPN can hide from possible cybercriminals and others who might want to do harm.
Things A VPN Can Hide
1. Your IP Address
One of the most important things VPNs can do is to mask or hide your IP address. Your Internet Protocol address uniquely identifies your computer or device on the internet. Your address can allow others such as your ISP (internet service provider), search engines, websites, advertisers, and even hackers to track you on the internet.
You might think that using your browser’s privacy or incognito mode can hide who you are. While it can, in some cases, your ISP can still see your IP address and provide it to others. If your ISP can still see it, there’s no doubt that hackers can get it as well. In any case, relying on your browser’s protective mode for security is not a great idea.
Some of you may not care. But for others, this lack of security might sound a little scary. Using a VPN allows you to appear as though you are using the VPN’s server and IP address. The provider often has multiple IP addresses located around the country or even the world. Many others will also be using it simultaneously. The result? Would-be intruders looking over your shoulder can’t single you out.
Hiding your IP is the first step toward true online security. It’s like an online footprint; finding it can lead to discovering other important, private information you might not want to have exposed.
2. Geographic Location
Once someone has your IP address, they can use it to determine your geographic location. Your address identifies where you are down to longitude and latitude. It can even allow someone—i.e., an identity thief, cybercriminal, or just advertisers—to figure out your home or business address.
If someone can determine where you are, it could put you in danger. Since a VPN basically changes your IP address (this is also called IP spoofing), others will not be able to find your geographic location. They’ll see only the location of the server that you’re connecting to.
IP spoofing can come in handy if you wish to access sites that may be restricted or different in your geographic location. For example, Netflix provides specific programming depending on what nation you’re in. Since a VPN has its own IP address, you can see programming available in the VPN server’s location. For example, you can potentially access UK-only Netflix content when your physical location is in the United States.
3. Browsing History
Your IP address can provide others with detailed information—and browsing history is a part of that. Your IP address can be linked to everywhere you’ve visited on the internet. You may think you’re keeping this information from others by clearing your browser history. However, your ISP, advertisers, and even hackers can still find it.
With a VPN, you don’t have to worry. You will basically be an unknown user in a giant crowd of users, all using the same IP.
4. Online Shopping
If you do any online shopping, your IP address is attached to that as well. Advertisers and marketers can determine what type of products you buy and use that data to send you ads. Have you ever wondered how Google knows to send you ads for products you were browsing on Amazon? It’s simple: it tracks where you’ve been and what you‘ve looked at by following your IP address.
A VPN can also hide your online shopping habits, which keeps you from being targeted by specific advertisers.
5. Social Media and Other Online Accounts
A VPN can also help you hide your identity on social media and other types of online accounts. By masking your IP, there are no traces of you using them other than the information you make available. Without a virtual private network, there are ways for administrators to track down who you are, even if you do not provide real contact information.
Torrenting, or peer-to-peer file sharing, is popular with many techies. If you are sharing copyrighted material, you can get into some real trouble. We certainly don’t recommend doing that. However, VPNs are often used by copyright-infringers in an attempt to protect themselves from legal trouble.
When you connect to the internet, you are always transmitting and receiving data. If you work from home, you constantly transmit data through your work environment. Sending emails, IMs, and even video/audio communications through the internet also transmit large amounts of data.
That data can be intercepted by hackers and other cybercriminals. From it, they can possibly get important PII ( personally identifiable information ) about you. The result? They might hack into almost every online account you have.
A VPN can hide this data for you. Using data encryption, it will transmit and receive your data in a format that hackers and cybercriminals can not easily decode. While there are ways around everything, if your information is difficult to get to, there is a good chance they’ll move on to someone easier to hack.
Hiding or encrypting data is enormously important for those of us who telecommute. Your company might have sensitive information such as medical records, bank account information, or other proprietary data. That is why most companies that let employees work remotely use some type of VPN to keep their data safe.
While VPNs are great for security and hiding your personal information, there are a few downsides. Because of the encryption and remotely located servers, they can slow down your network connections. This was a real problem in the past, but with new tech and the blazing-fast data speeds available today, this isn’t the problem it once was.
Another issue that comes up: since your IP is masked, you may have to take extra steps to log in to higher-security systems (a bank account, for instance). Accounts with high security often remember your IP address and recognize you when you try to log in. If you attempt logging in with some unknown IP, you might have to answer security questions, use two-factor authentication, or even get a call from them to verify that it’s you.
While this is a good thing—because it means your systems are secure—it can be a hassle if you need to get into an account quickly. Without your true IP address, you can’t always use systems that automatically know your location. If you’re searching for the nearest restaurant, for instance, you might have to manually enter your zip code before the search happens.
One last thing: VPNs are well-known to cause internet connection issues and other headaches. This can be avoided by using reliable software and providers. Virtual private networks have come a long way in the past few years. For more information, take a look at our VPN Buying Guides.
A VPN can hide many things from the outside world; most of that has to do with your IP address. By masking your IP address, a VPN can keep you safe and anonymous, while encryption can keep your sensitive data from getting into the wrong hands.
We hope that you have found this information informative and helpful. As always, please let us know if you have any questions or comments.