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What is a VPN?

A VPN can safeguard your privacy online, whether you’re working from home, travelling or using unsecured public WiFi in a cafe. But how does VPN protection work and do you need it?

A VPN can safeguard your privacy online, whether you’re working from home, travelling or using unsecured public WiFi in a cafe. But how does VPN protection work and do you need it?

Written by
Matthew Brewer
Broadband and mobile expert
4 min read
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What is a VPN connection?

VPN stands for virtual private network. That’s the easy bit. Now for the tech behind it.

In a nutshell, VPNs make it a lot harder for snoopers to track what you do online as they provide an extra layer of security and privacy. And because of ongoing concerns surrounding personal data protection, they’re growing in popularity.

Many businesses and organisations use VPNs as internal private networks to keep their staff connected wherever they are. But they’re also used by individuals who want to stay safer online, especially when using public WiFi.

You can use a private network to protect all your devices – computers, laptops, tablets and mobile phones.

How does a VPN work?

VPN is often described as a secure virtual tunnel between your device and the internet. In the real world, you could compare it to driving a car through a tunnel. No one can see into your car until you exit the tunnel.

With a VPN, all your internet traffic passes through a tunnel where all your data is encrypted. Nobody can see into it, including hackers, governments and even your internet service provider (ISP).

A VPN works by re-routing your internet connection through a private server. Without a VPN, it would go through your ISP, which can see the websites you visit.

With a VPN, your traffic still passes through your ISP, but it can no longer read it or see where it’s going. The websites you visit will only see the IP address of the VPN server, which is shared by several other users and changes regularly.

It’s basically as close as you can get to surfing the web anonymously.

Why use a VPN?

There are a number of reasons why you might want to use a VPN:

  • More security – browse the web in private without being tracked. VPNs reduce the chance of hackers getting their hands on your personal information. However, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bother with anti-malware software.
  • Feel safer using public WiFi – secure your connection to WiFi hotspots in public places like cafes, airports and hotels which are often prime targets for cyber criminals.
  • Block ads – hide your identity from advertisers who use your IP address to tailor content to you. While some people find targeted advertising useful, others can feel uncomfortable that outsiders know too much about them.
  • Working from home – connect to your workplace remotely using your company’s central network. A VPN is essential for working from home because it provides you with an encrypted connection for securely accessing your organisation’s internal network.

What are the disadvantages of VPN?

While VPNs have many benefits, there are a few downsides to look out for too:

  • Privacy issues – some VPNs, particularly the free ones, don’t always respect your privacy and security. Before choosing a VPN service, it’s important to check customer reviews and find out exactly what you’re signing up to.
  • Slow connection speed – the extra effort needed to reroute your connection and encrypt your data can slow down your broadband or restrict your bandwidth. This might not be an issue with high-speed fibre broadband, but if you game a lot, a VPN could hold you back.
  • App data concerns – some VPN providers will expect you to install either their own app or a third-party app. This could collect a lot of data, like your location, who your mobile phone provider is and what other apps you use. Always check what permissions a VPN app wants before you agree to download it.

How do I get a VPN?

If you think you could benefit from using a private network, you’ll need to choose a VPN provider. Think about how fast you need the VPN to be and whether you want to set up VPN access on multiple devices.

Most providers charge a monthly fee, with prices depending on the level of VPN service they offer. You can get free VPNs, but these aren’t the most trustworthy services and some will even sell your information on to advertisers. Which kind of defeats the object…

You can use a VPN directly through your browser by installing one as an extension or add-on, but the most common type of VPN is a standalone app that you can install on your device.

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