Like myself and many others, when you first hear about a “VPN” or its full meaning, “Virtual Private Network” just the name alone can send many people scuttling in to the corners and turning away due to the complicated way in which it sounds. There are a massive range of uses of a VPN but sadly it seems that many everyday computer users can be put off by the technical aspect of their use and what appears to be an over complicated way of setting up access to the systems.
Luckily as we move forward there is a wide push by providers to provide software or clients for all main systems which takes out any of the hard work of set up and allows you to be connected within 1 or 2 clicks of a mouse or taps of a screen if you’re using a tablet or mobile device. This is simplicity at its best and without requiring any technical know-how, apart from the ability to download desktop software or install a mobile app now even those who feel they are not technically able, can join the revolution that is known as a VPN.
One of the most unassuming features of a VPN service is its ability to protect your privacy and from a user perspective the simplicity in which it does this. Regardless of if you make use of custom provider software or apps or go the full whole hog and download OpenVPN to compile yourself the theory of the connection is the same and from the actual connection perspective the amount of protection that it provides is exactly the same. There are varying levels of encryption and depending on which provider you make use of this can vary widely but for the average user this should not be something of a major concern, as long as you can trust the provider to have correctly set up what they provide to you as user side software and their server side security is done right then new users to the VPN market should not overly worry about what type of encryption is being used as long as it is up to a basic standard that will protect you from some of the more unscrupulous internet users out there.
There is a lot of discussion about protection from government spying and the use of VPN services to thwart this type of threat, in general it is likely true that they can protect you from low level fish net type data recording and what I mean by this is mass collection of data without reason or without suspicion. If you’re the type of person who may be up to something they shouldn’t or are high enough profile to warrant tracking by the government then regardless of what public offering service you make use of they would always find a way of following your movements be it online or in a physical capacity. Luckily 99.9% of us aren’t that interesting to the Government or Spy agencies and the only concern for the majority of us is can a VPN provide protection from hackers and other nefarious types?
The main area of concern for most users should be accessing public wi-fi locations and the ability of hackers to snoop in to what you’re doing online while on that public system. Many of us now check our social media accounts, email and other personal services while on the move, the world has changed dramatically over the past 20 years and even the way in which we now make use of the internet itself has completely changed within the past 5 years alone. With this comes an increased threat to our personal details and what the world knows about us. Many of us are happy to disclose personal details to a select group of friends online via social media, but would we be so happy to allow a stranger to know those details? A lot of us make profiles private or to friends only but with the ability to access and snoop on your account when connected to public wi-fi without your knowledge it is the equivalent of allowing a stranger to riffle through your life.
So taking the public wi-fi situation how can a VPN protect your privacy? Well, firstly what you must understand is when you make connection to the internet, be it at home or in a public place, all of your data is sent to either your ISP or the wi-fi access point in an unencrypted manner, this means that if anyone was to poke their head in on your internet connection they could basically see what you are doing at any given time. It isn’t possible when you’re accessing a site such as your bank because these types of highly sensitive sites make use of a secure HTTP connection and thus encrypt your data. The rest of your usage, for example the websites that you visit or the details you enter on non-encrypted sites could be open to abuse or snooping.
One of the main features of a VPN service with encryption is it takes everything you do online be it encrypted websites or non-encrypted ones, skype phone calls, emails and everything else and encrypts all of the data before it is firstly sent on to the server of the VPN provider and then decrypts it at the other end to send on to the wider internet. What this means from a privacy perspective is you are putting an added layer between what you do and your own connection or the connection of the wi-fi provider. Lets take for example you visited a particular website, something such as CNN, from your home connection or a public wi-fi point it would be possible to see that you or at least someone in your household on a home connection had connected to CNN. When you access via a VPN connection it is impossible to see what you accessed, the first possible public viewing of CNN would be from the VPN server itself and any good provider will provide means to protect linking that to yourself or your VPN account. So from this very simple explanation it becomes clear that protection of your privacy is provided by obscurity and adding an extra layer between yourself and your internet usage.
In terms of protection from criminals and hackers this is a vital tool in the fight against protecting your personal privacy as it removes the ability to snoop on your personal data due to the encryption employed between yourself and the VPN server. It also goes some way to limit the amount of metadata which is the huge fishnet type data the the government collects about you. In this day and age and moving forward making use of a VPN is a critical tool and now something I and many others see as a vital requirement for accessing the internet.