Encryption is a term used for a lot of things these days. It generally means protecting data from being read by anyone else, which is usually done via a combination of encryption and password protection. It can also refer to the process of encoding information so that it is unreadable by anyone else. For instance, the characters on a printed page may be scrambled to make it unreadable without the use of special fonts and paper.
The most common type of encryption used today is symmetric encryption, where both the sender and the recipient of a message use the same “secret” key to scramble the data. This key is usually a long series of numbers or letters, and two parties must share the key to be able to read each other’s encrypted messages. Symmetric encryption algorithms are fast and relatively simple to implement, but rely on the key being secure, which can be difficult. For instance, if one of the parties is compromised, the key is instantly compromised, and all the encrypted data from that point forward is vulnerable to decryption. (This is a common problem for all symmetric encryption algorithms.)
How Does A VPN Keep Me Safe?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) can also be used to protect data, and is a type of encryption that doesn’t have the symmetric key problem because it uses a one-way encryption algorithm. This is also known as public-key encryption (or asymmetric encryption), and it allows for signature authentication along with encryption. (Think of a signature as a certificate that identifies you as the original transmitter of the message and vice versa.)
This procedure is much more secure than symmetric encryption because it inherently protects the key from being read by anyone else (i.e., it is not a shared secret between the parties who use it). When two parties use this type of encryption, they generally agree to use a random number generator to create a key pair. The first part of this key pair is then used to encrypt the data (i.e., the second part of the key pair is then used to sign the message for authentication), which makes it extremely difficult for someone to manipulate the data once it is encrypted.
The problem with this procedure is that it’s a lot more complex than symmetric encryption. Creating and managing a key pair is also more work than simply using a shared secret between two parties. (Hence, why it is recommended that VPNs be managed by a third party, such as a certificate authority or a clearing house.)
Should I Use A VPN?
It’s a good idea to protect yourself online. Not only does using a VPN ensure that your personal information is secure from hackers and other individuals who may want to access your data, but it also protects you from the restrictions put in place by your Internet service provider.
If you use public WiFi cafes or hotels to access the Internet, your personal information may be scanned by cyber-criminals looking for a soft targets to hack into. A cyber-criminal’s first step is generally to probe for open WiFi hotspots near you, to see if there are any unprotected communicated entities near you. (Think of a WiFi hotspot as a public access point.)
Using a VPN to protect your personal information when using public WiFi is therefore a good idea. If you want to do more than just use a VPN to protect your data, you can also use it to keep your personal information private, even when using public WiFi. If you access a VPN through a dedicated app or web browser, you can also generically hide your personal data (i.e., not just from prying eyes, but also from the viewers of those prying eyes) when using public WiFi.
The Bottom Line
A VPN is a great way to secure your data when using the Internet, but it’s not a panacea. As with all good things, using a VPN comes with advice on how to use it safely. Always make sure that you’re not using a VPN for illegal activities. Also, make sure that you review the TOS (Terms of Service) and other clauses in the agreement before using a VPN.