While most people now know to use multiple complex passwords to ensure their data and devices are secure, it is much less common that people also use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) as part of their cybersecurity setup, particularly on mobile devices. But in many cases, the protection that a VPN offers can be just as important to your security as more commonplace things like having antivirus and using secure passwords.
It’s all too easy to become comfortable using internet-connected devices without being aware of the risk a cyber security breach could bring to your data and privacy. An excellent example of an often overlooked security risk is free Wi-Fi in places like coffee shops and restaurants.
Initially it can seem great – an opportunity to preserve data on a mobile plan, to catch up with social media at an airport or to get some work done while out and about. But the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ rings true. Free Wi-Fi is generally based on unencrypted networks, which leave your data at risk from hackers and cybercriminals.
By installing VPN software on your devices you can browse safe in the knowledge that your activity is hidden from prying eyes, and that the data you send and receive is safely hidden under a layer of encryption. Just as you wouldn’t leave a device full of your banking information and personal identification details lying around password-free for anyone to access, it’s worth considering that you shouldn’t transfer that data over the internet without the protection of a VPN.
How it works
At its most basic, a VPN client provides users with increased privacy and security for their online activity. This is done by ‘tunnelling’ the user’s connection through an encrypted server.
The encrypted, private link between your device and your VPN service will hide your identity and activities from your internet service provider (ISP), public Wi-Fi and any other third parties. Rather than being able to view and understand your internet traffic, encryption means that data describing your activities will look like nothing more than a random selection of digits and letters to anyone looking in.
When put side-by-side with other security software, the closest comparison with a VPN is a firewall. While a firewall protects the data housed on your device, a VPN is a shield protecting the data you transfer and receive during online sessions.
As well as protecting data, a VPN can be used to mask your location – which can be helpful to prevent location tracking, and to stop your data being collected and used for ad targeting.
How to set up
After you have created an account with your VPN service, the setup process is very simple. Just download their software onto your devices and log in. From here you can select a connection via a number of servers based around the world, and then browse as normal. To outside observers your connection and actual IP address will be masked, and look as if you’re based in the country you selected. While this is valuable for anonymity online, it is also a useful should you find yourself living or working in a country that is strict about internet censorship.
Setting up a VPN at home can be done in two ways. First, it can simply be installed on individual devices, which is the least complicated method. This can be useful for those who are new to VPN services and are looking to become familiar with the software. For more advanced users VPN services can also be installed at the router level, meaning that every device on your network will automatically connect to the same VPN when they connect to your home or office internet.
While your identity is masked by a VPN, one of the key security features is the encryption of your data. This ensures that even if your data was collected by a hacker, they would be unable to decode it.
The encryption standard for most VPN services is AES 128-bit and AES- 256-bit (Advance Encryption Standard). The numbers refer to the length of the key. Imagine trying to guess a 256-character password – that is what hackers would need to do to access your data.
As technology continues to advance, the variety and number of threats to the security of your devices and personal data continue to grow – and VPNs continue to improve encryption methods to keep their users safe. However, VPNs are only able to protect the data being sent and received by your devices. If tracking software or cookies have made it onto your device, they could still be sharing your data. To protect against this, it’s best to install antivirus software and keep it up to date.
There is never going to be a universal, one-size-fits-all solution as new methods of protection and new threats arise. However, by combining strong passwords with a VPN client and the latest antivirus software, you can be confident that your data is protected.