If you’ve ever logged on to the Internet from an airport, coffee shop, university or library, you’re accessing public WiFi networks. When you log on, your device will usually pop up a warning that data shared on this network can be compromised, so be careful about exposing your personal information.

To be quite frank, most people don’t give that warning much more than a passing thought, much to the delight of hackers and criminals everywhere.

If you want to protect yourself and your data when browsing the Internet on a public network, there’s only one real solution out there for you; investing in a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

What is a VPN?

A VPN is a secure connection that allows you to send and receive information from the Internet or a privately-owned network. It uses an encryption process to make it impossible for anyone to see what data is moving to or from your computer. A VPN is an extra layer of privacy and security for your online activity when you aren’t using a secured server.

VPNs aren’t just for individuals using the Internet in public, however. Companies use VPNs to move secure data across the Internet to ensure a secure transfer between networks. For a more robust look at who VPN users are, see our section on “Who Uses VPN?” below.

How does a VPN work?

Once upon a time, the Internet was referred to as the ‘information superhighway.’ We can consider a visual of that to describe how a VPN works. Envision a highway full of cars representing Internet users. From above, we can get a lot of information about them – what color car they have, how fast they are driving, what exit they are getting off at, their car model and age, and if we’ll look closer, even their gender, the number of people in the car, etc.

Now imagine the highway is instead a covered tunnel, like the kind that cut through mountains or go underwater between destinations. From the outsider’s perspective, we are still certain there are cars passing through the tunnel, but their identifying information – color, model, who’s driving, etc. – are hidden from our view.

A VPN serves as your covered tunnel. It establishes an encrypted connection between your device and a VPN server through which all the information you’re sending and receiving from the Internet passes. Once at the VPN server, the information than goes on to the actual websites or services online that you are using. Much like in the highway example above, someone attempting to view your online activity would only be able to glean that you are using the Internet, not what information you are sending or receiving.

Who Uses VPNs?

People who access the Internet in public a lot, such as those who travel for work frequently, are among the primary users of VPN. Other uses include:

Protecting online purchases: If you frequently buy items on the Internet, turning on a VPN will ensure that the credit card or debit card information you enter into a website will not be accessible by anyone trying to hack your information.

Accessing geo-blocked content: The most well-known example of this is Netflix, which offers only certain content based on what country you live in. When you use a VPN, your connection takes on the IP address of the country that the VPN’s server is located in. For example, if you’re an American soldier stationed in Japan, you wouldn’t be able to access the US Netflix service from your base. But using a VPN with an US IP address would allow you to do so.

Getting around filters at your workplace or school: If you want to check on your eBay sales, but your work network blocks it as an unproductive site, using a VPN could be a way around that restriction. Of course, take it with a grain of salt that there’s a reason your job or school is blocking these sites and that they might not look too keenly at you using VPN to get around their security protocols.

You want to remain anonymous from your ISP: Depending on what country you live, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) might be complicit to the local authorities on turning over data including your browsing and download history along with your identifying data.

Whether it’s for personal peace of mind or perhaps you’re researching in a controversial topic, using a VPN will block your ISP from seeing where you go on the Internet.

What are the negatives of using a VPN?

The term latency refers to how long it takes a packet of data to get from one point to another. When using VPN services, your latency time will increase, often dramatically depending on the geographic distance from your location to that of the VPN server. This can make your browsing experience a time-consuming one.

Another negative on VPN usage is that some websites will block or limit access when they suspect you are visiting via a VPN connection. If VPNs do not change the IP addresses they use to provide encrypted access, websites will often recognize the same IP address over and over again, which will set off warning bells of suspicious behavior.

Sites like Facebook and Netflix are wary of scams to gain access to their sites using false IP addresses and will block access or ask for additional layers of security.

Conclusion

What is a VPN? It’s a great way to enhance your security and peace of mind when the using the Internet from a public place, transmitting valuable data or trying to circumvent mandates based on your physical location. While there are some downsides to using a VPN, its ability to encrypt your data against would-be thieves makes it a valuable tool for numerous Internet-based activities and transactions.