What is a VPN?
A VPN is a powerful and versatile tool that can make it nearly impossible for someone to snoop on your network or track you as you browse the web. How does a VPN work? Put simply, 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. As well as creating this safe tunnel, 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. Since performing online activities such as banking, shopping or email on public Wi-Fi networks makes you especially vulnerable to identity and data theft, a VPN can mitigate these risks by preventing other users on the same Wi-Fi hotspot from intercepting your web traffic.
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A VPN can also securely connect you to your company’s network, even when you’re outside the office. So 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
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, recommended by PC Mag for first-time users, that offer free versions of their VPN services. But as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for: a free VPN will likely have limitations, such as the number of simultaneous connections, speed, server locations and, sometimes, even the data usage. In saying this, a free VPN might be enough if your needs are fairly basic - so consider your business's demands before making a choice between free and paid.
To get started, choose a VPN that’s user-friendly. Top VPN providers such as Private Internet Access VPN, NordVPN, and the previously mentioned TunnelBear, 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 ask 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, you’re almost always going to want to choose the VPN server 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 Private Internet Access VPN do not keep logs of any form of customer data or user activity.
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 sensitive information 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 to alert your rival that you have visited their website. And, of course, a VPN is essential if you plan on accessing resources on your business' 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.
*Originally published March 6th 2017. Updated November 8th 2019.