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What is a VPN?

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What is a VPN?

With multiple stories about data theft and online fraud making the news recently, VPN’s are one of the latest buzzwords to be used in connection with computer safety.  Beyond all of the convoluted techno-jargon and scaremongering that these such articles conjure, VPN’s do serve a very practical function.  But what exactly is a VPN and how do can we use them?

What is a Virtual Private Network (VPN)?

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Used on a computer, smartphone, tablet or any other device which provides you access to surf the web, virtual private networks provide a certain level of security when sending and receiving data.

A VPN essentially adds a layer of encryption around your messages when you connect to a server through the internet.  Additionally, it also works to hide the connection path between your web browser and the network you’re connecting into, which gives it a similar functionality to accessing a network directly, rather than through the internet. 

It can be thought of as using an anonymous messenger to carry your parcels rather than a handing them straight over to a UPS driver, although you’re also putting the parcel into a sealed package that a thief would have great trouble unlocking.

How can VPN’s be used?

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While you can think of a VPN connection as a private tunnel between your computer and the server your accessing, there’s actually a variety of ways in which they work but none of them are completely invisible and none of them are 100% secure.  There are two main ways in which they can be used by a regular computer user, which are:

  1. A cheap method of creating a personal network – While cloud storage is becoming an increasingly popular way for users to access personal files and information online, often it is too expensive to use large amounts of data in this way.  VPN’s provide a more secure way to access your files from a physical computer over the internet, whether this is a company who needs to allow employees access to the business network, or a casual user who wants to access their music stored on their home computer from afar.
  2. Obscuring your real location – By replacing your IP address to match a different geographical location, you can gain the benefits of a foreign web connection.  This can either be in the form of Streaming the American version of Netflix from the UK, or vice versa and likewise, it can allow you to connect to sites like Facebook and Youtube if you wake up in China.

Which VPN is the best?

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There are many different VPN’s on the market and each of them offers different levels of functionality. While some specialise in peer-to-peer file sharing such as BitTorrent, others will cancel your licence if you try to use them for this purpose and so it’s important to know what you’re signing up for.

To choose the correct package for your needs, identify exactly what you require from the VPN before comparing suitable packages for performance, speed, reliability, support and reputation as well as price. Using several different sources to cross-check your research will also help authenticate the information as well as teach you more about the finer workings of a product that can increase your online security.

Furthermore, some VPN’s require a deeper knowledge with regards to setting them up as the user interface is not always friendly towards beginners.  Many of them, however, are free or offer limited-time free trials to test the software and this is the best way to begin learning more about how they actually operate.

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