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What a VPN does and does not do

If you’ve been working from home these past few years, or managing a remote team of employees, you might already be familiar with a VPN. A VPN is often seen as the gold standard of remote work, a simple and elegant way to protect private data from prying third parties. 

Whether you’re already using a VPN, considering switching, or wondering if you need one, there are several key details about this network encryption method that you should know. A VPN can help protect your network, but there are many things it cannot do as well. Discover what a VPN does and does not do, and why you might want to rethink your own network security, below. 

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. A VPN is, at its core, a shrouded network configuration. It allows your system, whether you are using a cell phone, computer, laptop, or other internet-enabled device, to connect remotely to a proxy server. This allows you to browse the internet using that other server’s internet connection. 

This linkage allows your own information a level of protection that a direct connection does not. For instance, if the server you are connected to is located in another country, then your information will seem as if it is coming from that location. So if your VPN is routed through Germany, but you are physically based in the US, you would have access to German content, without certain restrictions or the ability of third parties to track your own location and IP address based on your browsing history. 

What Does a VPN Do

A VPN is a powerful tool for privacy that protects your IP address from being logged. Some of the things that a VPN can do include: 

  1. Protect your location: Your information will be logged as the location of the server, not your own physical location. 
  2. Bypass geographic restrictions: Some content is restricted based on your country of access. A VPN can get around those barriers, making it especially useful for streaming. 
  3. Offer an additional layer of security from public or unsecured hotspots: A VPN is usually a safer option to access the internet, given the private “funnel” to a proxy server. Your passwords and data you enter becomes much harder to track with the anonymity it provides. 
  4. Access protected content: Many businesses choose to give access to restricted data only through a VPN. This ideally ensures that only credentialed users can see proprietary and sensitive information. 
  5. Protect your IP address: Your IP address is shrouded when using a VPN, preventing tracking based on this valuable internet identification tool. 
  6. Limit ISP and government monitoring: Personal information is collected every time you access the internet, often by government agencies, advertisers, and your internet service provider (ISP). Using a VPN can cloak your activity, protecting your privacy.

What a VPN Cannot Do

While VPNs are incredibly popular, they have limits on what they can achieve. Using a VPN is not a one-stop shop for internet privacy. Using one can still leave you or your business open to bad actors and tracking in several ways:

  1. Phishing attacks: Phishing attacks are one of the most popular scams on the internet. Even the best VPN can not entirely avoid them or protect you against them. Phishing attempts usually look like legitimate messages designed to get you to click on certain links. Once you do, certain kinds of malware can still be downloaded to your computer, even when using a VPN. 
  2. Internal vulnerabilities: Even a strong VPN cannot fix already compromised networks. If the computer or phone connecting to the VPN has existing internal vulnerabilities, or has already been hacked, then connecting to a VPN will only increase the insider threat. For companies with aging IT infrastructure, upgrading individual devices may be an important step to take as well as installing a VPN. 
  3. Malware: Even with a VPN you will still need a security system in place to protect against malware. Keeping security software up to date is another crucial step in place against cyber crime. 
  4. Browser fingerprinting: Browser fingerprinting refers to the collection of:
  • The type and version of the browser your device is running
  • Your operating system and its version
  • Your device’s screen resolution
  • Your timezone, language, and any active plugins running

While this information may seem extraneous, it can help identify you, even when your IP address is effectively shrouded by a VPN. The likelihood of two laptops having the exact same browser fingerprint is approximately 1 in 286,777

  1. Some government and ISP tracking: Under certain exceptions, some traffic of yours may still be accessed by government actors and your internet service provider. 
  2. Purchase records: Not all details surrounding a purchase through a VPN will be anonymized. For instance, what you buy with a credit card can still be tracked back to you by the bank that issued the card, or by the retail service provider that keeps a log of your purchases. 
  3. Signal tracking: Mobile service providers may be able to access location information about devices, even when connected to a VPN. Even though your IP address should remain private, not every detail does. 

Do I Need a VPN?

Many individuals opt for a VPN to access geographically restricted content, as well as to increase their own levels of internet privacy. Additionally, many businesses turn to VPNs in order to facilitate remote information sharing, protect data, as well as ensure that all employees have a more secure connection than most public WiFi. 

Whether or not you need one depends on your own personal browsing patterns and desire for privacy. Using a VPN certainly cannot hurt when it comes to protecting your privacy. The only question is, is it enough? The answer remains to be seen, as businesses turn to cloud-based security and other network connections in order to remain one step ahead of criminals in the cyber age. 

Sources

Gabrielle West
Gabrielle West is an experienced tech and travel writer currently based in New York City. Her work has appeared on Ladders, Ultrahuman, and more.

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