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VPN: what is it, how does it work and what is its importance?

VPN is an acronym for Virtual Private Network. This security solution has been around for a while, but until recently, it was used primarily by two profiles of internet users: those who were concerned about their online privacy and those who were looking for some way to access geographically blocked content (i.e., available only to citizens of certain countries).

With the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV2) pandemic however, everything changed. The need to implement remote work solutions and the increased use of personal devices for business purposes — including laptops and smartphones — has pushed companies to implement VPNs almost with a sense of urgency. But, in the end, what exactly is a VPN, how does it work, and what is its importance in terms of information security and protection of user privacy?

The key is encryption

To make a rough comparison, a VPN is like an armored car that you use to transport your valuables from point A (your house) to point B (your bank). First of all, it is worth recalling the basic principles of the Internet: whenever you access a website, a web application, or any other resource that is hosted on the World Wide Web, you are simply accessing the content stored on a server (which is nothing else than another computer) located somewhere around the globe.

What VPN does is encapsulate your traffic (that is, the communication between your device and these servers) into a kind of tunnel built with high-level encryption, protecting you against any malicious agents that can spy on you or steal sensitive data. This is the importance of using this type of software, especially in unknown connections, such as public wireless networks or coworkings (a place where many people use the same Wi-Fi point).

Believe it or not, but when browsing the web with no encryption, your Internet service provider may very well monitor your activity and see which sites you're accessing. In addition, there is a type of attack known as "man-in-the-middle", in which the criminal intercepts your connection to eavesdrop on your Internet traffic. With this, the attacker can, for example, extract the password you type in when using Internet Banking or the credentials you entered in a social media account.

Hidden internet user

Of course, this is just one of the advantages of using a VPN. Many people use such solutions for their ability to hide your Internet address (IP), allowing you to pretend you are browsing the web from the US, Norway, Japan, Saudi Arabia… It is your choice. This is very useful when accessing content and websites that are only available to citizens of a given country and even when shopping for exclusive products from a particular country.

“But can't this be used by criminals to hide their activities?” you then ask yourself. Yes, it can. But in computer forensics, there are methods to track down a criminal and identify the person.

Finally, it is important to point out that there are free VPNs, but their use is not recommended, as such programs tend to monetize your access records or display too many advertisements. It's worth investing in monthly or yearly subscriptions for a quality solution — there are several reliable options available on the market that are sure to fit in your budget. After all, no money can buy you a good night's sleep knowing your data is safe.