What is a VPN?

VPN is one of those tech terms and has gained a lot of traction in recent years as the internet has diversified and grown to even bigger levels.  However, the premise is actually quite simple, and there are some great use cases.

  • Here is our curated list of the best VPN services

It stands for ‘virtual private networking’, which is a popular internet security method. The latter involves technologies that aim to add a layer of security to both private and public networks. These include broadband and internet hotspots.

A VPN (virtual private network) is therefore a secure and private solution within the wider internet itself that allows users – whether they are individuals, or part of an organisation, or business – to send and receive data while maintaining the secrecy of a private network.

That means you could use one to create a secure "tunnel" into your company network to enjoy access to private internal systems, but also means you could browse in complete privacy online and access content you might otherwise not be able to get such as Netflix or BBC iPlayer.

Optimal, not total, privacy

All the traffic that passes through your VPN connection is secure and cannot, in theory, be intercepted by anyone else, making it the safest mainstream way to browse the web privately (but not always anonymously).

Just bear in mind though that VPN setups are only as secure as the weakest link in the entire chain. So if your device has already been compromised with malware already, using a VPN won't save you from being spied upon, although a good antivirus could. 

If there’s one worry when it comes to using technology and the internet, it’s privacy. By using a VPN, you can, in theory, prevent your internet service provider (ISP) and government from seeing your internet history.

VPNs have also emerged as a popular tool in the freedom of speech movement. You’re able to avoid censorship within organisations and from third-parties. For example, if you have a view that goes against the priorities of your employer, you don’t have to worry about them finding out.

People also use VPN technology to “geo-spoof” their location. This results in users customising their location settings to be able to use overseas services. A great example of this is watching a TV programme or online product that’s only available in a specific country, perhaps due to legal or licensing issues.

Privacy is the priority

You can resort to a VPN to protect yourself from hackers too. If you’re outside and sign up to use a public internet hotspot - perhaps in a cafe or library - there is the chance someone could try to break into your device. This can lead to you losing valuable data, such as passwords. 

This technology is also emerging as a popular force in the world of business. When you’re traveling  around for meetings all the time, it’s normal to connect to third-party networks. With a VPN, you can access your firm’s intranet without the worry of being targeted by cyber criminals.

Many VPN services - there are about 400 of them on mobile and desktop - offer different pros and cons, so if you're looking to access Hulu or BBC iPlayer from a different region, dial into your office network or simply stay safe and secure online, you'll find a service tailored precisely to your needs.

Furthermore, a VPN can be used to avoid having your internet connection throttled, and that’s certainly relevant at the moment given what Verizon is up to over in the States. According to reports, the ISP has capped Netflix streaming at 10Mbps, and also throttled video on its unlimited plans meaning that smartphone viewers can’t achieve a better quality than 480p.

One provider, NordVPN, reckons that some users have seen their Netflix streaming speeds triple by employing a VPN to bypass Verizon’s throttling. That’s certainly food for thought.

It’s also interesting to note that while phishing remains a major danger online, a VPN can help protect you against malware or con tricks when web browsing.

Proxy vs. VPN

Proxies are also popular, and there’s always the question about how they differ from VPNs. The aim of both methods is to protect users’ identities or to spoof a location. While they are different technologies, many VPN providers also offer proxies.

A proxy is type of computing system that functions as a go-between for your connected device and your web connection. These servers also have their own IP addresses, so transfers can’t be traced directly to your computer. 

They may share common aims with VPNs, but typically, they only secure a torrent client or browser. Using a VPN, you can encrypt 100% of your internet connection, so there’s more protection.