What Is a VPN, and How Does it Help?

In the last few years, VPNs have become incredibly popular, especially as companies have transitioned to remote working and more contractors have picked up permanent positions in other cities or countries. They’ve even gained popularity with people who want to keep their personal lives personal, as they’re often used for securing sensitive data while browsing the web.

Before we begin, it’s important to understand what a VPN is and what it does. So, here’s a handy (and probably not very legally approved) guide to explaining what a VPN is, and how it works.

What Is A VPN?

Put yourself in your employee’s shoes for a moment: You’ve been out of the office for a while and you’ve now returned. Your first port of call is going to be your email, as you want to check in with your contacts and colleagues to find out what’s been happening while you’ve been away. You want to make sure everything is still ticking over, and you don’t want to miss any important emails.

Now, imagine you’ve just set up your personal email account on your phone (because let’s be honest, your employer probably doesn’t provide you with a work-related email address), and you click on the first email in your inbox, which happens to be from your manager. That email is going to have three important parts:

  • An attached document
  • A link to a webpage
  • Some kind of notification that the email was just sent (e.g., a green checkmark)

The first part is the most important, as it contains the document you need to review and, depending on its importance, decide whether or not you need to open up a separate email to have a look at it. The other two parts aren’t critical and can be ignored until you’ve looked at the first part.

That’s the general idea behind a VPN: give your employees a secure email address that they can use to communicate with customers and colleagues while they’re working remotely, and give them the privacy and security they need to do their jobs effectively.

Why Do I Need A VPN?

It’s important to understand why you need a VPN before we dive into how to set one up. There are a few different reasons why you might want one, but generally speaking, you need a VPN if you’re working remotely and don’t want your employer to be able to track your activity on the internet.

For example, let’s say you’re a freelance web developer who specializes in creating websites for musicians. You’ve now returned from your lunch break, and you want to check up on some of your work while being able to maintain your privacy on the internet. So, you open up your web browser and type in the address of a musician website you created, thinking that you’re now going to be able to browse the site without any problems, as it’s hosted on a remote server that’s not connected to the internet. But unfortunately, when you try to access the site, you get a popup saying that you have to log in to see the content. That’s because the musician has set up a VPN to protect their network and ensure that only their customers can access their content. So, in this case, you would need to have a VPN to be able to access the musician’s site.

Another common scenario is when you’re using public WiFI in a coffee shop or airport. Many big coffee shops now offer WiFi hotspots, and many airports around the world have started to offer free WiFI for their passengers. But, if you choose to use a public hotspot, you’re effectively relinquishing your privacy. The person who set up the WiFi network can monitor your activity, and if you want to keep your personal information private, you need to set up a VPN to protect your online activity while you’re on the go. You can use a WiFi hotspot without a VPN, but it’s highly likely that your employer or a third party could monitor your activity anyway, simply by knowing your physical location.

This isn’t just limited to coffee shops and airports, either. Even if you’re using your own WiFi at home, someone could potentially monitor your activity. If you want to keep your personal information private, especially if you’re not sure who’s around at the time, you could try turning on your VPN and making yourself a bit harder to track. (It’s usually best to turn on your VPN as soon as you turn on your wireless network, so that your activity is already encrypted when other people try to connect to the network. Then, if you forget to turn it on, you’ll have to remember to turn it on before you begin using the network.)

How Do I Set Up A VPN?

If you’re interested in setting up a VPN, the first thing you’re going to need to do is purchase a VPN plan from a reputable provider. Don’t worry, we have you covered on this front: We’ve compiled a list of the best VPNs available, which you can find at the end of this article. After you make your selection, you’ll receive an email, which will contain further instructions on how to install and use your new VPN. (Usually you’ll just need to click on a link in the email.)

Once you’ve set up your VPN and confirmed your email address, you’re going to have to create a new username and password. Remember these details, as you’ll need to enter them every time you use your VPN. If you forget your password, you can contact the company that provides your VPN and they’ll be able to reset it for you.

Now that you have a VPN and are using it to log in to websites, it’s a good idea to tweak some of the settings. You can use the advanced settings on your VPN to control which protocols are used to encrypt your data and which ones are used to authenticate your identity. (These are the technical aspects of setting up a VPN. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll keep things simple and go over the basics here.)

What Is A Protocol?

A protocol is essentially a set of rules for sending information. When you use the internet, everything from your calls to bank accounts to your emails is transmitted across networks using a protocol, which is ultimately responsible for making sure that the information sent is valid and safe.

You don’t have to understand protocols to use them, but, in order to ensure that your data is secure while on the internet, you must become familiar with them. There are many different protocols, but we’ll focus on the two most commonly used protocols here: SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and SSH (Secure Shell). Let’s take a closer look at each one.

SSL (Secure Sockets Layer)

SSL was developed to ensure that your online financial transactions are secure. When you visit a secure website, for example a bank website, the site is typically going to ask you to login or register. During this process, the site may ask you for your username and password. When it comes to sensitive data like this, it’s typically a good idea to use an encrypted connection, so your details aren’t snooped on by third parties. (Third parties are basically entities other than the website you’re on, who might be listening in on your communication.)

An SSL certificate is going to be crucial to having a secure connection to a website that uses the protocol, as it allows the website to prove that it’s genuine by showing that it’s signed by a reputable certification authority. (A certification authority is essentially a third party that verifies that a website or company is legitimate.) In order to set up an SSL-protected connection to a website, you’re going to need to visit the website’s SSL certificate authority’s webpage first, and then click on ‘Add to Browser.’

This way, when the website you’re visiting asks for your login details, you’ll be presented with a warning that the site’s security is questionable. But, if you want to proceed anyway, simply click on the green button that says ‘Allow.’ Once you’ve done this, you’ll be able to successfully log in to the website, as it will verify that you’re who you say you are. (Keep in mind that these days, many websites and companies use two-factor authentication, which often involves a physical token as well as your username and password, so they can ensure that it’s you who’s logging in. But for the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that you’re using your personal details alone.)

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