What is a VPN and how can it keep me secure online?
When you interact with someone new online or a stranger in the real world, there’s one piece of information you usually play close to your chest if you’re smart: your home address.
You don't just hand it out to anyone. Your address and home are sacred and private to you, shared only with those you trust.
Coincidentally, using the internet, at least conventionally, is a lot like that. Any time you connect to the internet, you are given something called an IP address.
However, on the internet, you essentially "give out" your IP address anytime you visit a site, complete a transaction, or sync data online whether on mobile or on a desktop computer. You're leaving footprints so to speak that lead back to you, so to speak.
In other words, anything you do while browsing can be traced back to that IP address. This means that your browsing habits and data can be monitored and reviewed or worse, you can be spied upon. Someone who wants to view your online activities can try to get a hold of your IP, whether through illicit or legal means, and see the websites you visit – adult sites, the online stores where you shop, what products you purchased, who you talked to – and pin all these on you, the individual.
Why public IP addresses are dangerous
Why does this matter? Several reasons.
One relates to privacy and security, or your inherent right to protection from being spied on, whether that be government-based or otherwise. In the U.S., that’s clearly a real problem, but it’s not confined to a single country. It happens everywhere.
In the United States, for instance, a large-scale government program – facilitated by the Central Intelligence Agency – relied on data tracking for a huge number of citizens and individuals. What this means, is that they could see everything someone was doing. This could, in turn, be used to blackmail or harm you later not even necessarily by the agency collecting the data. The point is, the data is collected, and anytime, someone could break into the vaults and steal the data.
Say, for example, you are browsing adult content sites in the privacy of your home. Whether you agree with this action morally or not, it’s something that should remain private, and you do have the right to keep to yourself, so long as nothing illegal is involved.
If an agency is tracking your data, they can see you visiting these sites on a home computer. They may have no intention of using this data or even reviewing it internally. However, another party or hacker breaches their network, steals that data, and now has complete access to it. That third party could then turn around and blackmail you, cause serious employment or personal repercussions, or worse.
Publicly available information – your IP being one of them – is what brands, businesses and advertisers use to target you directly, making things personal. It’s not always ethical or acceptable, but it happens. As long as you’re associated with a public IP, there’s really nothing you can do about it, aside from swearing off the internet forever, which – let’s be honest – is not likely to happen.
Some tracking methods involve the use of your public IP address, so once malicious individuals – hackers, cyber-attackers or identity thieves – have it, they can continue to tap all that related information and data. This could allow them to, say, link up credit card and financial information that may have been leaked in a previous breach. Or, they could tap into and access an open port or vulnerability on your home network simply by using your public IP.
A VPN as a way to remain anonymous
Queue the VPN or Virtual Private Network. It is a modern masking tool that can be used to hide your public IP address from potential cyber spies.
When you activate a VPN, it works sort of like connecting to a remote computer or network. The VPN assigns you a fake or temporary IP from a completely separate location. Your IP may indicate, for instance, you’re based out of Russia or Africa. If and when someone tracks your IP, they only see the temporary or masked address, not your real one. They don't see your IP, only the IP that the VPN has temporarily assigned you.
In this way, you are protected from external spying and so is anyone browsing through the use of your VPN. These tools have come a long way in recent years and operate as an all-encompassing system — often working with a variety of devices including tablets, smartphones, desktop computers and more.
It's not the end-all, be-all solution for cybersecurity concerns, but at the very least, it's another layer of protection – perhaps one that may become necessary as cyber-attacks potentially become more sophisticated as well.
Installing a VPN
To mask your IP, you install a piece of software or app called the “client” on your device. Once the VPN client is installed on your device, say a desktop, other devices such as mobile devices or game consoles will be able to connect to the VPN through your desktop acting as the server.
Other types of VPN services, require nothing more than an app install, like on your mobile device.
As long as the VPN is enabled or active while you browse, all your history and habits will be associated with the temporary IP and not your real one.
It is important that you understand not all VPNs are created equal, however. Some record and maintain a connection log, which can be used to track the history of your temporary IPs. An influential agency could, for example, audit the VPN provider for access to these logs and eventually connect the dots, linking you to browsing history and URLs across the web.
So when choosing a VPN, do your research and ensure the provider you choose does not maintain logs such as this. Often, they will tell you upfront if they do or not. If you see no mention of it anywhere on official pages or media, you might be better to avoid said provider until you can find out for sure.
VPNs aren’t perfect, however. There are some quirks, and or setbacks you may have to deal with. Because of the nature of these tools, your browsing speed and connection may be slower than usual. Therefore, a VPN isn’t ideal for high-latency activities such as gaming. While you can stream media and video content with them, some will also suffer lag or quality issues though not all do.
For the extra security that a VPN may provide in today's sophisticated cybersecurity landscape, it's one to strongly consider. – Rappler.com